'Social Bite Village' leads the way in reinventing empty or derelict land

Social impact: New powers could pave the way for transforming sites

New beginnings: The Social Bite Village. Picture: Jeff Holmes
New beginnings: The Social Bite Village. Picture: Jeff Holmes

A small plot of disused wasteland in Granton, in the north of the capital, became one of Scotland’s unexpected success stories when it was transformed into a village and community hub for homeless people – the first of its kind in the UK.

With rows of brightly coloured flowers surrounding quaint, timber NestHouses designed by Tiny House Scotland, the space is now a charming community environment known as the Social Bite Village.

It was launched by the social enterprise in May and provides accommodation and support for 20 homeless people, each for up to 18 months at a time.

However, the site remained vacant for a number of years before Edinburgh Council donated it to the ambitious project.

“This is one of the really good examples of an unexpected use,” says Hamish Trench, chief executive of the Scottish Land Commission (SLC).

Transformations such as this are what the SLC wants to see across Scotland and with the total size of vacant and derelict land comparable to that of the Isle of Bute, or twice the size of Dundee, there is good reason to do so.

The SLC is calling for a wider, more collaborative partnership between private and public sectors and social enterprises to spark new connections in order to realise the opportunities and uses of these sites.

“They sit right in the middle of communities and therefore a large proportion of people live within 500 yards of derelict and vacant sites, so they do have an impact on communities,” says Trench.

“In many cases, they can be a magnet for crime and violent activity.

“They are a blight on neighbourhoods, but there are many sites that areas of the community actually have ideas as to how they want to bring them back into use.”

A well as crime and anti-social behaviour, these sites are often deterrents for inward investment and can prevent long-term regeneration.

So much so that there is a clear relationship between land vacancy, dereliction and deprivation, meaning the most disadvantaged communities are those most affected by them, according to the SLC.

The organisation, which is funded by the Scottish Government to deliver a programme of land reform, has recently published a report that envisages abandoned buildings and small plots of land tackled by a compulsory sales order (CSO).

The proposed powers would be part of a tool kit to allow planning authorities to auction areas that have been left “for an undue period of time” so they can be put back into use.

The plan has been drawn up by the SLC with support from the homeless sector including charity Shelter, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, Scottish Urban Regeneration Forum and many planning authorities across Scotland.

Trench says: “Very often you find that owners of relatively small spots of land have sat on them because it is simply not possible or viable for them to bring them back into use.

“It may be that they have unrealistic expectations of their value so they do not sell them on the open market.

“The compulsory sales order is a mechanism designed for local authorities to apply when they think that a change of ownership is required to bring that site back into productive use.”

The majority of Scotland’s vacant and derelict sites are in the Central Belt and a majority is a legacy of industrial decline and changes in industrial land use.

That means the sites are often hindered by a number of environmental issues including land contamination as well as economic and financial challenges.

That said, many in Glasgow are now being turned into community allotments and green spaces shared by neighbours.

Trench says: “There are many examples of these slightly new and imaginative approaches happening across the Central Belt.

“However, they are individual examples at the moment and we are looking to make that approach the norm and take a much more systematic approach to tackling empty sites.”

Trench believes a shift in culture is already under way in regard to regulations.

The SLC is working with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to ensure that a site’s potential use is considered at the first stage.

Once it is identified, he says a tailored support system and regulatory approach can turn that shared vision into a reality.

He adds: “Authorities are doing some great work bringing individual sites back into use, however the scale of the challenge means that we now need a much more systematic approach to be in place.

“We need to collaborate with some new players from both social enterprise and private sectors as well and that is really what we are looking to do here.

“It is all part of helping people to bring these sites into productive use to the direct benefit of communities and towns right across the country.”

Vacant sites

- Scotland has more than 11,600 hectares of vacant and derelict land

- The figures have not changed since the 1990s

- There are more than 37,000 long-term empty homes, according to Shelter Scotland

- 102 homes could currently be targeted by compulsory sales orders

- 29 per cent of Scots live within 500 metres of a derelict site

Building civic pride into Scotland’s communities

Comment: Derek Robertson on making towns and villages more attractive

Scotland has experienced a beautiful summer this year and there have been plenty of opportunities to get out and see the country at its best.

After a day of enjoying the Scottish scenery, not much can beat stopping at a thriving town or village, complete with a buzzing high street full of booming businesses, interesting social options, attractions and environmental appeal – you know, somewhere to sit outside and have a coffee while watching the world go by.

Clean, green, safe, attractive and welcoming are some of the characteristics of a sustainable town, somewhere we feel comfortable and would like to spend time.

These types of places don’t appear by chance, these are places where communities have purposefully invested in their appearance and infrastructure to make them feel safe and welcoming, and are those in which residents have a strong sense of civic pride.

They are locations where people care about where they live and where there are collaborations and partnerships.

They are where people have a strong desire to make the place they love as good as it can be. Sadly, this is not the picture throughout Scotland.

Far too many of our traditional towns look tired, unloved and are suffering from neglect, blighted in many cases by high levels of littering, graffiti, fly-tipping and dog fouling.

They seem to lack the community action that helps bring prosperity round.

Shops that are boarded up, streets that feel unsafe and places that are unkempt make some towns unappealing and if places are neglected, there is a cost.

Not only is it detrimental to the local community and its economic prospects, but it hampers efforts by our local authorities and tourism organisation Visit Scotland to bring tourists to our doorsteps.

Of equal importance is the acknowledgment that there is an individual cost also.

We now know that there is a direct correlation between the way a place looks and feels, and the health, well-being and life chances of those who live there.

Although this is a complicated problem linked to budget cuts and austerity measures, we do have to find solutions.

Perhaps, for some people, they need to think about their individual behaviours and ask if they are doing the right things; do we care about increased littering in our streets and parks, and does it bother us that community volunteering has disappeared in some places?

Could the money spent on cleaning up and dealing with our throwaway culture be better invested in making our local places more attractive?

I know where I would want my taxes to be spent.

However, it doesn’t hurt to care and it is free to do the right thing.

By pulling together in the name of civic pride, we can clean up many of our towns and communities and begin to turn the decline around.

We really can stimulate attractive places for people to enjoy.

At Keep Scotland Beautiful we are trying to play our part. Through initiatives like Beautiful Scotland, It’s Your Neighbourhood and Clean Up Scotland, we have inspired many thousands of people to get out there and make a difference to their towns and communities.

Look at the efforts of CLEAR Buckhaven in Fife which has created a community growing space, Our Lane in Glasgow which is building places in Battlefield where neighbours can meet, The Maxwell Centre in Dundee, the Powis Residents Group in Aberdeen and The People’s Project in Dumfries.

They are comprised of ordinary, everyday people pulling together to make their neighbourhoods better.

If they can do it, so can all the wonderful towns and communities right across Scotland that just need to be loved and cared for.

Derek Robertson is chief executive at Keep Scotland Beautiful

Nominations for Scotland’s Most Beautiful High Street open later this month. To enter click here