‘Community right-to-buy’; in action, in town

IT was widely hailed as being the first urban community to successfully utilise community right-to-buy (CRtB) powers, introduced as legislation five years ago.

It was legislation building on the Land Reform (Scotland) Act of 2003 (which had a rural focus) that began to make it possible for urban groups to pursue a property for community purposes.

Under the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, it is even possible for community groups to register an interest in, and seek the transfer of, property owned by public bodies. 

‘Asset transfers’ don’t even need groups to be comprised of near neighbours (a geographical community) and nor does a property owned by a public body (such as a health board or a local authority) even need to have been declared surplus to requirements and put on the market. 

But in the case of Portobello-based ‘Action Porty’, it was the CRtB route – rather than an asset transfer one – they decided to go down, not least because it was a Church of Scotland (not technically a public body) property they had in their sights.

It was back in early 2016, when a handful of folk met in a cafe, to discuss the latest implications of Church of Scotland congregations merging in the area, and the risk, therefore, of a key building being lost to the community.

Church buildings routinely play host to youth, mother-and-toddler, martial arts, older people and other groups. And in Portobello, already one Church of Scotland building had been sold, for housing. When it was feared that a second might be destined for a similar fate, that’s when Action Porty sprang into gear.

A public meeting, held in the April of that year, saw around 70 people agree to see what they could do to save the building (pictured) – in the area’s Bellfield Street – for the community.

Very quickly, a committee was formed and constituted the group as a company limited by guarantee (one of the eligible CRtB forms of governance). Over time, many other people would get involved, including to fundraise, knock on doors and help spread the word.

At that cafe meeting was someone who could boast some relevant expertise: Ian Cooke, then director of Development Trusts Association Scotland.

“I had been invited, I think, because I sort of knew my way around community ownership, the relevant legislation and available funding,” begins Cooke.

“There is no escaping the fact that CRtB involves quite a lot of work, and you need some expertise, as well as determination.”

The first task – after establishing the company limited by guarantee – was to build a case that would entitle ‘Action Porty’ to even register an interest in Bellfield, as a possible CRtB project.

Among other things, that involved setting up a petition, to demonstrate a basic level (at least ten per cent) of community support. 

Later in the whole process, evidence of genuine community support required the setting up of a postal vote (which delivered an astonishing 98.7 per cent approval rating, from a 51 per cent turnout) among residents of the neighbouring streets (the ‘community’ boundary kept relatively tight, in an effort to keep the required community endorsement to a manageable size). 

But that was for later. In the meantime, it was all about having to secure a yes from the Scottish Government to even try.

Adds Cooke: “A CRtB is more like a ‘community right to register-an-interest’. It can then be a waiting game, as it requires a property to come on to the market. And when it does, there is a six-month window to complete the purchase.”

Of course, there had always been the option of Action Party submitting a straightforward commercial bid for the building, hoping for a period of grace to raise the necessary funding. But it was not to be.

And so there began a process of imagining, in some detail, just how the building might be used by the community, drawing up architectural plans and setting down a business plan (which, among things, required an understanding of the building’s heating, maintenance and repair needs).

The successful registration with the Scottish Government made it possible to apply for some seed funding, in the main to employ professional expertise, and this was provided – to the tune of £16,000 – by the Scottish Government-funded Scottish Land Fund.

When the Church of Scotland came to put the building on the market, the CRtB was triggered, thus effectively freezing the sale process and activating the six-month countdown. The Scottish Government then commissioned an independent valuation of the property – both Action Porty and the Church of Scotland choosing also to commission their own.

When the independent valuer settled on a price of £600,000, the Scottish Land Fund came good with a grant of £570,000, the shortfall secured via other pots of public and charitable trust cash. In the end, the Scottish Land Fund finally provided £647,500, to allow for some essential repairs and to begin installing the resources necessary to make the place actually function, such as a part-time member of staff.

And so Bellfied Street church now belongs to the community. Once the lockdown response to the Coronavirus pandemic is fully lifted, it is expected to reverberate to the sound of people making round-the-clock use of it, including Edinburgh Youth Theatre.

The hard work has not yet stopped. There are some practical issues of how best to use various rooms in the building, including whether they are sufficiently sound-proofed to host music performances.

And there are always other prospective community groups looking to tap Action Porty for advice. One the most recent regulations to get one’s head around was issued in October two years ago: CRtB ‘abandoned, neglected or detrimental land’.

Concludes Cooke: “We chose to take advantage of CRtB because we were dealing with a building that was not owned by a public body – though I suppose you could try to make a case that, when it comes to churches in particular, they were often built by the community through public subscription. 

“The ‘asset transfer’ route is probably more appropriate for those looking at something owned by a public body.

“As I understand it, it doesn’t matter whether there are any plans to sell or not. An application for asset transfer can really only be prevented if there is a credible reason as to why the property cannot be sold. 

“There is a presumption in favour of the community, which is a significant initiative by the Scottish Government. It is for the public body to come up with a solid argument as to why they cannot sell to a community bid.”

Mike Wilson is a member of the PlaceDesignScotland team

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