Scotland is set to get its own equivalent to Speakers’ Corner in London – in the shadow of a statue of Queen Victoria.
The foot of Leith Walk would become home to regular public speeches and debates under plans to breathe new life into the area.
The idea has emerged during talks between politicians, arts organisations and community groups about reviving the fortunes of the historic Kirkgate.
It has its roots in the late 15th century, when South Leith Parish Church was created, and has been a focal point political speeches and demonstrations since the 1950s.
It is hoped the creation of a Speakers’ Corner will also tackle concerns from Leithers that they feel locked out of decision-making on the future of the area. Leith Walk has been transformed by a wave of gentrification over the last decade, although the “Foot of the Walk” has been plagued by antisocial behaviour issues.
Along with the idea of a Speakers’ Corner, a complete “redesign” of the Kirkgate area was put forward during the recent talks to try to turn it into “a vibrant centre for Leith, a meeting space, performance space and destination.”
New farmers’ markets and the staging of cultural events and festivals in the Kirkgate were also suggested in the final Leith Blueprint report. More than 3000 Leithers were consulted as part of a £46,000 research project, which has recommended the creation of a new community development trust to spearhead change which has the backing of locals.
The study said: “Across the board there is a feeling that the community are not in control of the choices that affect the area and there is often little transparency surrounding decision-making. This has led to disempowerment.
“Respondents called for better management and investment in public spaces, including the Kirkgate, providing more places for people to sit. There was acknowledgement that the various communities need to integrate better, as well as increasing links to cultural activities. An appeal for civic spaces for people to mix more meaningfully was made.”
Leith councillor Gordon Munro said: “The Kirkgate was historically the main route through Leith. It was known as ‘The Channel’ because so many people flowed through it. It’s a real meeting place, and it was and still is a great campaigning spot. There is a famous photo of Jimmy Hoy, the Labour MP, campaigning there in the 1950s. Having a Speakers’ Corner there sounds like a good idea to me in this social media age. Sometimes the old way of doing things is the best.”
Duncan Bremner, one of the researchers behind the study, said the Speakers’ Corner idea had come up during discussions about encouraging public debates in Leith.
He added: “It ties into ideas around reinvigorating the Kirkgate, a desire to improve local democracy, and the idea of ‘civic’ space in the public realm.
“I also think that if politicians have a belief in what they are doing then they have an obligation to engage in public debate. It has been interesting to see how lots of different political parties and community organisations have taken to the police box on Leith Walk.”