Justin Kenrick: Community planning is a great idea '“ but it's a difficult balancing act

A PAGE on the Scottish ­Government website claims, boldly, to describe How Community Planning Works.Cynics might answer: 'It's complicated.' They might be right.
Justin Kenrick is Chair of Action PortyJustin Kenrick is Chair of Action Porty
Justin Kenrick is Chair of Action Porty

While community planning has been around since the 2003 Local Government Act, the big shift ­underway is making sure it’s not just token consultation, but genuine ­community participation in ­planning our futures. This is what the 2015 Community Empowerment Act envisaged, and it is a big change.

Here in Edinburgh’s seaside of ­Portobello there has been significant residential development in recent years and the community has ­resisted the idea that the area’s last prestige site at Westbank (currently occupied by a five-a-side complex and Tumbles gymnastics centre) is completely given over to dense new housing.

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Powerleague runs the football ­complex – known by many as The Pitz after a previous owner – on the site via a long lease from the council. The local authority has indicated it is willing to buy out the lease so it can sell the site, with Cala Homes emerging as the council’s preferred bidder from a long list of interested developers.

The council admitted failings in the consultation process at a feisty ­public meeting last November attended by 150 people. The local authority’s ­senior estates officer recognised that “additional consultation should have taken place”. Action Porty has stepped into the breach to try to make sure this ­happens.

Having led the first urban community buyout in Scotland, of Portobello’s Old Parish Church, our group received one of Scotland’s first ­community planning grants to find out what Porty people really want to see at Westbank.

The grant will allow local people to draw on professional expertise to develop a community aspiration plan for the site. It is a tremendous opportunity to engage the community in the planning and design stage – but as you might expect, it’s complicated.

We need to persuade the council that a community-led design can raise revenue and meet other key targets. For example, the site could develop even better space for Street Soccer Scotland in its crucial social inclusion work, and provide PE space for nearby Towerbank which has only 50 per cent of the playground area the council’s own standards require. Meanwhile, the GP surgery is bursting, while over the road, 700 new homes are being built on a site which previously housed community work and leisure spaces.

There is no immediate unanimous agreement on the way forward. Save Porty Fives wants to keep the ­football pitches, while Action Porty veers towards retaining two to four pitches, a refurbished Tumbles in a new ­location on the site (agreed by the council) and a mixture of housing, open space and other amenities to serve community needs.

This weekend, Portobello Town Hall hosts a drop-in event where local people and users of the existing ­facilities can find out about and give feedback on the various proposals.

There is also the issue of short-term gain versus long-term benefit. The city council might want to maximise receipts from the site to help pay for ongoing refurbishment at Meadowbank Stadium, but we need to be sure this is balanced with what is right for the site – and the community.

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There is also that the council’s ­earlier promise – evident in the 99-year leisure lease – that the site would remain in leisure use for ­perpetuity. Save Porty Fives are stressing that particular point as they push their campaign, while others think they can live with a mixture of leisure, commercial and residential use. We’ll know better where we are heading after this weekend.

There is a lot of work ahead for the volunteers of Action Porty as we try to shape a shared community vision. We hope people will input their views, ­especially on Saturday 10 to 1pm, and respond to three different community-generated designs, to be presented on Sunday between 12 and 1pm, as we all work to try to turn a threat into an opportunity.

Time is not on our side as the city council’s planning committee will consider the proposals for the site on 27 March – and will need the community plan well before then.

But to press ahead without hearing the voice of local people would not be in the spirit of community planning, and indeed may end up with a public inquiry given the open space designation of the land. All at Action Porty now know that community planning is a ­complicated ­balancing act, but then again, so is life.

Justin Kenrick is chairman of Action Porty www.bellfield.scot/westbank-pitz.