Leith is many places, whose voice is unheard?

Film maker Ray Bird captures some of the action at Leith Conference

How can the great wealth of knowledge and talent in Leith be harnessed? What is the best way to develop a shared understanding of the local potential to meet needs and overcome obstacles?

Leith Conference

The place is packed. The hall is fairly humming with that unmistakeable sound of people getting properly engaged. All ages. Busy tackling the big issues of local life. So why are we worried about who is not here?

Is that a sign of local perversity? There’s lots on in Leith any day of the week.  On a sunny Saturday morning many folk, especially those with young families, have plenty other things to do.  Even so, there are more than one hundred people signing into the event at Norton Park Conference Centre. And that with a match on at Hibs Stadium next door, this afternoon.

In truth, with ten tables pretty much fully occupied, there’s not much room for any more.  Still, as flip chart comments show, each workshop is aware of gaps in the groups represented around their table. Whose voice is not being heard, where are opportunities to meet, how do we fill the gaps?

i in 3 children in poverty in Leith: 'That makes me sad' Willie's flipchart note

And that is exactly what Leith Conference is after. Reaching out and connecting are driving purposes of this weekend.  A genuine community-led ‘place-plan’ needs genuine community engagement.  And no-one could accuse the organisers – LeithCreative and Leith Trust – of being unambitious. The overall aim is to lay the foundation for “a new community generated Local Place Plan, shaped by the people of Leith.” 

For the plan to be the best, and most relevant it can be, we need input from everyone across the area.

Where local meets global

That was just over a month ago (26/27 October 2019).   Now – I’m writing this after the general election campaign – I briefly wonder if it’s even more perverse to focus on local issues when national and global events pose such huge challenges?

Yet the pressing issues on the tables in the conference hall – housing, health and well being, transport, green space, public space, environment, social care, community cohesion, sustainable employment – are exactly where local action meets global thinking.  These are universal needs. The election campaign – and its outcome – has reinforced divisions within and between all parts of the creaking United Kingdom. But Leith Conference was a powerful reminder that – regardless of tribal politics – every day, people are engaged in vital work to improve quality of life in their own communities. Against the odds, they achieve small miracles. Just getting on with it. Because it needs to be done.

People make places, for better and worse, and it’s worth taking a look at what that cliché really means. Look closer and you find stereotypes crumbling. At each table in the hall there’s a mix of ages with workshops being co-facilitated by young people from the Citadel Youth Club and Leith Academy [as you can probably see from the main image, above, with Ray Bird of Rare Bird Media, hard at work documenting the event].

Brendan Lamont of Leith Depot digging into huge pots of chickpea curry and macaroni cheese
Brendan Lamont of Leith Depot setting up Saturday lunch

At the end of the weekend the greatest number of votes went to calls for integrated planning, intergenerational activities and a shift in the balance of power. [LeithCreative has published an impressively detailed full conference report: click HERE]

  • We don’t just need housing. We need facilities, services, schools, community centres, green space, public spaces. We need a vision and a masterplan with colour and vibrancy, focused on our needs (workshop: Access to buildings and space )
  • Intergenerational activities to bring young and old together  (workshop: Keeping Well)
  • Change of power relationships between Community & Planners (workshop: Development, housing and planning)

How to make that happen? Sharing knowledge and experience is an essential part of successful community activism. On both days speakers gave stimulating insight into the secret of getting community voices heard in high places. On Saturday Jemma Neville, author of Constitution Street, Finding Hope in an Age of Anxiety, and Jane Jones, from the Fountainbridge Canalside Initiative on campaigning for green space and affordable homes. On Sunday, Lesley Riddoch, of a Thousand Huts, Eigg Community Buyout, and The Power of Local, and Linda Somerville of Save Leith Walk now campaigning for community right to buy.

What happens next?

Many people signed up on the day, however, if you are willing to contribute to the process of creating a Leith Local Place Plan let us know by return email [info@leithcreative.org].

Duncan Bremner

There’s no quick fix, as Jane Jones reminded the audience on that sunny October day. LeithCreative has now started making the crucial follow up, writing to everyone who took part in the conference, with an invitation to join the residents steering group. A meeting with Scottish Community Development Centre will explore how to build on the buzz of ideas captured on those flip charts. A conversation with Forth Ports will pick up CEO Charles Hammond’s promise to kickstart a community support fund.

There is much to celebrate in Leith, as Duncan Bremner of LeithCreative and Faith Liddell of Leith Trust, said in their opening remarks.   So much, in fact, it’s often hard to keep up with events and activities of an extraordinary diversity of small businesses, voluntary groups, charities and publicly funded organisations at work across a widespread area.

Leith is not just one place. Every street and open space reflects an astonishing diversity of cultural heritage.   Place-based community empowerment allows for differences while developing shared understanding, and common purpose.

Faith Liddell

There has never been a better, or more urgent, time for our communities to work together. ‘Community empowerment’ is now enshrined in legislation as Faith pointed out. Public bodies are legally bound to engage with local communities and the Scottish Government is encouraging ‘community-led, place-based planning’. But no-one at Norton Park was under the illusion that this is a simple process. Essential relationships – between people, planners, policy-makers, politicians and developers – take time to build and meticulous attention to detail to produce constructive results.

“You have to know you’re in for the long haul” says Jane Jones from a chilly Fountainbridge Canalside. “We also need to know how power works, how politics works. We might start by pooling resources to learn from one another.”

And don’t forget having fun. Eating together was another theme running throughout the event. Not least at lunchtime when a different rhythm entered the room (“You can always tell when the pudding comes out” said Duncan with a smile). On Saturday, Brendan Lamont of Leith Depot served platefuls of delicious chickpea curry and macaroni cheese to hungry participants. Next day it was the turn of World Kitchen in Leith with a multicultural fusion. The flavour of Leith.

Disclosure [Fay Young]: I was at the conference representing Leith Open Space and with World Kitchen in Leith (more about the power of food in future posts). As a result of the Community Manifesto – produced after the Side by Side conference two years earlier – I was also privileged to be a member of the steering group who spent many months planning the event.   


How to join in? Contact info@leithcreative.org

Further reading:

Leith Creative: Leith Creative full conference report

Audit Scotland: Principles for community empowerment

“There are risks in implementing new approaches, but there are
also risks associated with public bodies not working effectively
with communities and citizens not feeling empowered. “

Leith Open Space: Community Manifesto

Members of World Kitchen in Leith
Members of World Kitchen in Leith dish up fusions of Leith flavours: from left Rami Okasha, Fay Young, Ellie Casson, Alice Musamba Purves, Meena Bhana

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