The restoration of properties on Dumfries High Street

THE contractors are already on site and work is progressing to turn previously vacant buildingst into a combination of ‘enterprise’ space on the ground and first floors and residential apartments above.

Welcome to the town’s Midsteeple Quarter – the recent recipient of £3.4m of Scottish Government funding (as reported, here) to transform 135-139 High Street, Dumfries.

The money tops up several other funding sources – including from South of Scotland Enterprise (£2.2m) and Dumfries and Galloway Council (£900,000) – to carry out what will be a £7.2m restoration project.

Midsteeple Quarter was founded in 2018, constituted as a Community Benefit Society and in response to two troubling concerns that are instantly familiar. The vacant buildings that dotted Dumfries High Street not only diminished the area’s attractiveness (to both townsfolk and visitors, alike), they also highlighted a dearth of local residents in the town centre.

But while many volunteer groups (and they usually begin that way) might struggle to identify the ownership of the properties they consider to be potmarking their high street, the Midsteeple Quarter group found the task of investigating who owns what relatively straightforward.

Begins MSQ executive director, Scott Mackay: “For us, it was no more complicated nor expensive than simply going to the Registers of Scotland – here – and paying £3+VAT per search. That will have been because many of the properties we were looking at had changed hands within the relatively recent past and there are easily-accessible records of the transaction.

“I imagine it being more difficult in places where there isn’t a high turnover of property and the ownership details are – for want of a better description – still on parchment. There is one little bit of back land – to another property we own – that we are still trying to pin down the ownership of, but that isn’t impeding any of our efforts.”

Once identified, the property owners were politely contacted, with the prospect of Community Right-to-Buy (under Scotland’s relatively-recent community empowerment legislation) dangled in front of them. Not that a CRtB is a compulsory purchase order, by any stretch of the imagination, but it can be a hassle to defend. The result? Most of the property owners who were contacted agreed at least to begin negotiations.

All the owners were found to be UK-based, with none based in Dumfries. The typical owner was a pension fund or a property development company based in Edinburgh, Manchester or London.

In other words, no offshore ownership, which might have made things a little more tricky.

The result has been the sale of four individual blocks to MSQ, at a total cost of £487,000, paid for from a variety of sources, including grants from the Scottish Land Fund and South of Scotland Enterprise, plus crowdfunding. The building comprising Phase One of MSQ – namely, 135-139 High Street – was acquired via a community transfer, from the previous owner, Dumfries and Galloway Council.

At the beginning, MSQ was transformed from ‘concerned volunteers’ (including the Stove Network (which operates a cafe and creative space at 100 High Street) and the local Community Council) into a properly-constituted legal entity, thanks to a £100,000 grant from the local authority (using powers to divert Council Tax revenues from second homes in the region). There then followed an architectural masterplan and a blueprint vision document for the quarter.

A successful application to the Scottish Government’s Investing in Communities Fund – here – was able to pay for three, part-time members of staff, including Mackay, with one post currently vacant.

Among the inevitable bumps along the road, there was an attempt, in early 2019, to secure two buildings (113-115 and 117 High Street, both of which had lain empty for an estimated 17 years), which had been put up for auction.

With no reserve price attached to them, MSQ scrambled to run what was no more than a fortnight-long crowdfunding campaign – raising £80,000, which sadly proved still insufficient to secure the properties. But there was a happy ending, after all; the buildings eventually finding their way into the hands of people willing to sell.

So, in total, MSQ now owns five buildings, all on the High Street: 109, 111, 113-115, 117 and 135-139.

Soon enough, however, it might have cause to cast its net wider, in response to what feels like a rash of To Let signs popping up all over the place.

But MSQ’s transformation, from rallying point for concerned residents to fully-fledged property developer, is a story of patient determination and community backing.

As well as managing to attract grant-funding, there has also been two crowdfunding campaigns, for £80,000 and then £250,000, towards the buildings it was able to finally purchase.

Says Mackay: “I hear this of many successful crowdfunding schemes: most of the people who donate are able to afford £10, £20 or so, and then in comes a big donor to make up the difference. That’s what happened to us. You can imagine when we saw see our total boosted, to all intents and purposes overnight, by £100,000 – from a local charitable trust.”

Of course, the hard work begins kind of now. Seventeen years lying empty can do terrible things to a building. But give it time, and it will be soon ringing to the sounds of trading and residents.

Mike Wilson is a member of the Place Design Scotland team

Pictured: 135-139 High Street, Dumfries, Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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