Edinburgh’s Debts to Leith

“I like not fair terms, and a villain’s mind.”
Bassanio to Antonio, Merchant of Venice

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Most people from Leith, and living in Leith, will tell you that the Lightning Plebiscite rejected the amalgamation of Leith with Edinburgh but few will know the terms set by Parliament in the Edinburgh Boundaries Extension and Tramways Act 1920 that placed burdens on Edinburgh. Burdens that only an Act of Parliament can revoke.

The biggest and by far the most important is Article 56, which specifies that ‘…the buildings situated in Charlotte Street and Constitution Street Leith, known as the Town Hall or Council Chambers primarily for Corporation purposes…and used only for municipal or public purposes.’

They are currently occupied by Police Scotland with the Burgh chamber itself kept extant as well as on the property register of the Council.

But the point is that it still belongs to Leith and remains a public building for Leith. Police Scotland are actually tenants in my view. Should any move be made to take this away from us then we have the right to invoke Article 56 to keep it for Leith.

But there’s more. Article 62 lays out a series of ‘provisions’, these include at 62 – 1 (A) to provide and thereafter maintain…not less than 30 acres to be used as Public Parks or Recreation Grounds including provision for the playing of football’.

Recreation also meant Libraries too. At 62-1 (E) the Act directs that Edinburgh: ‘Make available for the Leith District of the City the existing Branch Library at McDonald Road, and provide Library and Reading Rooms in the Leith District of the City’.

The Act also made clear at Article 62-2 that within 12 years of annexation that Edinburgh ‘…erect and equip and thereafter maintain in the Leith District of the City, a Hall with seating accommodation for at least 1500 persons which Hall shall be available for public meetings and other purposes…’.

The ‘dowry’ even extended in 62-3 (C) to ‘The provision of suitable open-air bathing facilities between Leith West Pier and Granton Breakwater’.

Now these seem fair terms but in a villain’s mind these could be assets that are realised to raise hard cash, in particular in the case of the buildings.

In my first term of office I recall directors discussing how Leith Town Hall could be sold to fund improvements for the Kings Theatre. I pointed out that the 1920 Act would have to be overcome first and this ‘idea’ was dropped.

We now have a community led initiative that is working hard to realise the aims and ambitions for the Hall that the 1920 Act envisaged.

In the case of the Burgh Chamber complex some may recall that at the beginning of the Leith Docks Development Plan there was talk of co-locating Police and Fire to serve this new extension of the city.

Part of the thinking included using this complex and McDonald Road for a new purpose built facility. However the Act makes clear that this complex is retained for public use.

This is important especially as local control of Police was taken away with the creation of Police Scotland, which is ‘overseen’ by an unelected quango that has no knowledge of the 1920 Act keeping the historic Burgh Chamber for Leith.

We need to keep an eye on this to make sure it does not happen. The same applies to our Libraries that serve distinct communities in a part of the city, which, at the last census was the 4th most densely populated part of the UK outside London. Next years census is likely to reveal that developments since then have kept it in that position or maybe even higher.

The point here is that the Amalgamation made clear that Public Assets were to be retained, maintained, and built, within the framework of the 1920 Act.

Covid has meant that quite a few of the plans to mark/commemorate/commiserate the centenary have been missed, but it doesn’t mean the opportunity is lost.

I’ll give a personal example. Leith Swimming Club used to organise an annual sea swim for the Port of Leith Sea Swim trophy (350 yards in distance, a handicap race open to born Leithers and members of swimming clubs based in Leith).

My Dad won it in 1952 when it was still held in Leith Docks. (Where is that trophy now?) I won in 1975, the last year it was held in the sea before being moved to Granton breakwater.

Now – with the emphasis on fresh air due to Covid – a bunch of people have been swimming in Wardie Bay. If ‘suitable open-air bathing facilities’ were provided here in recognition of the Act, that would be a positive… It doesn’t have to be a lido, more an open air bathing pool enjoyed by wild swimmers throughout the UK.

Article 56 envisaged a civic life encouraging everyone to embrace all aspects of public life, be it parks, recreation, places for debate and enjoyment, or libraries – which advanced thought and the pleasure of reading.

What ‘municipal and public purposes’ can we now make happen to mark the centenary and end of lockdown?

The debate starts here.

Gordon Munro
Twitter: @tommoinleith

The New Town Hall Leith, 1829. Artist, T H Shepherd, Engraver, J Henshall

The point is it still belongs to Leith and remains a public building for Leith. Police Scotland are actually tenants in my view

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