After weeks of speculation the council has confirmed that it has agreed a deal with National Museums Scotland to buy Leith Customs House for a reported £650,000, with a view to setting up a Leith Museum in the building.
Needless to say, the locals leading the Leith Museum campaign are delighted, despite arguing that National Museums Scotland should lower their asking price on account of the fact that they were gifted the building for free by Scottish Ministers.
After the news of the purchase was made public, Fraser Parkinson of the Spirit of Leithers Facebook Page, who has played a leading role in the Leith Museum campaign, said that if the project is to be a success it must gain widespread backing.
He said: “Our hard work appears to be paying off. We see this as the beginning of a long journey to achieve a Museum of Leith facility that will be forward looking, embrace the local population and reach out to the thousands of people who will visit and love the richness of Leith and its community.
“It is now absolutely vital that as many people as possible get behind the development of the Museum. This is a fabulous opportunity to build on the local economy as well as provide opportunities for the arts and education. This museum must be forward facing but with a grounding that is deeply rooted in the heritage and history of our Port. To achieve this we need many Leithers involved not just a couple of the ‘usual suspects’.
There is currently no clear plan on where the £10m needed to fit out the building as a museum is going to come from.
Raising the cash to realise a Leith Museum is something that Fraser acknowledged will be a “significant and lengthy undertaking.”
He added: “We now look forward to an accountable and representative group to be agreed to undertake this work. Now is the time for hard work, consultation, creativity and inclusion of Leithers in this ‘Grand Design’ of their own.”
The Culture and Sport Convener, Councillor Richard Lewis, welcomed news that the purchase had gone through but admitted that the council does not know how long it could take before any “heritage centre,” would open or what “help” was needed.
He said: “Now that the Council’s bid has been accepted by National Museums Scotland, we are determined to take the project forward and identify how and when we can help open the doors to a heritage centre for Leith.”
He added that the offer “should” secure the building for public use, “as a hub for the local community.”
If the final purchase price of the building turns out to be £650,000 then the bid will have made a considerable dent in the city Common Good funds. Last time the cash reserves were reported in August, the fund had ££1,615,184 in the bank.
The decision to spend £650,000 on the purchase of Customs House comes little more than a year after the council sold Leith Waterworld for £1m to a private developer, reneging on a deal they did with locals who were in the midst of putting together a business plan to run the facility. To sweeten the pill, councillors at the time then agreed to spent £125,000 on free swimming lessons – so the sale of Leith Waterworld ultimately raised £875,000.
No councilors mooted using Common Good funds to support Leith Waterworld at any point during the long protracted campaign to keep the pool open.
At the time of the Waterworld sale the very same Councillor Richard Lewis said of the “difficult decision” to sell the pool: “This coalition feels that the potential purchaser will create a high quality leisure facility that will greatly benefit the community in Leith and the wider Edinburgh area.”
“Ultimately this option ensures that the community in Leith has an accessible leisure facility for many years to come,” and he noted that closing Leith Waterworld would also mean that “the council gets best value for the taxpayers of Edinburgh.”
To date, the site formerly known as Leith Waterworld remains boarded up. Moreover, it would seem that the council has just committed to spending all the money, and possibly more besides, raised from the sale of Leith Waterworld on the purchase of Customs House.
Whilst many Leithers will be delighted to see the council get behind the Leith Museum project, Greener Leith folk included, the lack of similar council support for other important projects such as the now lost Leith Waterworld, and the still underfunded Leith Theatre remains something of a mystery.
The upshot of all this is that now the council owns at least three “community” buildings in Leith which all need millions spent on them if they are to become fit for purpose: Duncan Place Resource Centre – where officials won’t even spend cash on a lift to allow the building to comply with disability access laws, – Leith Theatre – where the Leith Theatre Trust must pay the council nearly £30K a year rent, whilst it works on raising cash from third-parties just to get the fabric of the building into a useable state – and now Customs House.
And of course there is another notable parallel between the sale of Leith Waterworld and the sale of Customs House. In both cases, the money raised from sale of these buildings is to be used to improve facilities in the south of the city – The Commonwealth Pool and the Chambers Street museum – that will be very much “fit for purpose.”
Perhaps the time to really celebrate will be when public agencies manage to come up with a costed plan to bring these publicly owned buildings in Leith up to a usable standard? Until then, it would seem the small pool of locals with the skills, connections and commitment to raise cash will be asked to roll their sleeves up and start fundraising once again.
In this context, what exactly does “best value” mean in Leith and who decides? Answers on a postcard.
Leith Theatre are holding a fundraising concert on the 26th of July. The acts on offer are definitely worth £10 of your hard earned pounds.
Photo: Ronnie Leask | CC | http://bit.ly/1mZemg1