Brian Ferguson: Leith’s transformation is fascinating

Leith Theatre. Picture: TSPL
Leith Theatre. Picture: TSPL
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CREATIVE buzz is bringing a new lease of life to Leith, writes Brian Ferguson

In a previous journalistic life, many hours were spent poring over economic strategies for the city of Edinburgh.

It is telling now, almost a decade on from covering the affairs of the city council, how little progress has been made with the property developments such blueprints were largely based around.

Some, like the hugely-controversial New Waverley development beside the city’s main train station, are finally coming out of the ground. But others, like the regeneration of the waterfront, stalled many years ago.

That particular project, which had built up a remarkable head of steam during the 1990s and early 2000s, fell victim to the double whammy of the property crash and the cutting off of the waterfront from the first phase of the tram project.

You do not have to wander far from the still-fashionable Shore area to find evidence of the dereliction left behind when the glossy blueprints and costly masterplans turned to dust.

But just over a year ago something very strange happened. A new blueprint for the waterfront appeared which admitted that previous strategies had failed and the promises of thousands of new jobs being delivered in and around Leith’s docklands were simply not going to happen.

Instead, it predicted a future where arts, culture and the creative industries shaped the future of the waterfront. They were identified as the “most promising opportunity” for investment in the near future. After a decade of depressing inaction, significant progress seems to have been coming thick and fast since I reported on that new blueprint, with two major announcements in the last week alone.

The untapped potential of the area as a cultural hub was highlighted in the “Leith Creative” study last spring which found more than 1,140 artists, companies and organisations based there.

Within months, the city council finally agreed long-term leases with separate trusts to breathe new life into two of the area’s most historic buildings, the old Customs House, which overlooks the Shore, and Leith Theatre, both of which could play a crucial role in spreading the benefits of the summer festivals out of the city centre.

The Edinburgh Art Festival has already unveiled an expansion to Leith Docks this summer, with Turner Prize nominee Ciara Phillips due to transform a former lighthouse boat into a work of art.

Then there was last week’s news that the National Galleries of Scotland is planning to build a new state-of-the-art facility along the waterfront, on a long-standing gapsite in Granton, which would open up access to its world-class collection.

But the most symbolic moment of all came when it emerged that Leith’s “Big Blue Shed” building, which wave energy firm Pelamis was occupying just over a year ago before it went into administration, was being marketed by Creative Scotland as a potential home for film and TV productions, similar to the warehouses in Lanarkshire where the American TV show Outlander is made.

The fact that all the above have been progressed since that strategy envisaged arts and culture heralding a new dawn for the waterfront strikes me as much more than a coincidence. Wherever this growing momentum takes this area in the next few years promises to be nothing less than fascinating.