By rights, those in charge of Leith Depot should have been in mourning this weekend. As the long-running battle for the heart and soul of Stead’s Place, the two-storey 1920s sandstone block on Leith Walk in Edinburgh threatened with demolition by developers, looks towards some kind of endgame, its last remaining tenants were set to close the doors on one of the city’s finest small music venues for a final time.
As it is, the series of gigs that were originally supposed to be a last gasp wake for the bijou upstairs room of what was formerly regarded as Edinburgh’s worst pub before being reinvented as Leith Depot will now have something of a triumphal air. This is down to a last minute decision to extend Leith Depot’s lease for another month.
Up until this week, Stead’s Place owners Drum Property Group appeared determined to stick to an eviction date of October 1 for all sitting tenants. This was despite the fact that City of Edinburgh Council had unanimously rejected Drum’s plans to build 471 student flats, a 56-bedroom hotel and 53 so-called affordable flats alongside unspecified business and retail units. A proposed reduction of flat numbers was also rejected. Despite this, Drum pressed on, and lodged an appeal with the Scottish Government, with a decision from its Reporter pending.
Yesterday, however, Leith Depot issued a statement on social media to the effect that ‘on the back of a positive meeting with our landlord yesterday, we are pleased to say we have agreed a lease extension until 31st of October.’ The statement went on to say that ‘For the time being, we continue business as usual…’
Drum’s seeming volte face can be regarded as a major victory for the efforts of Save Leith Walk, the grassroots protest group whose colourful campaign against the destruction of Stead’s Place captured the collective imagination. Empty shop units were adorned with protest graffiti, poetry, quotes from German playwright Bertolt Brecht and anti-gentrification tapestries. Earlier this month, the boarded-up units were illuminated with washes of colour mock-ups of shops that were very very open. If a proposed community buy-out of the block were to take place, this could be made a reality.
Former tenants of Stead’s Place include Leith Café, the charity-based Punjabi Junction Café and The Bed Shop. Given that most businesses catered largely for local customers, their eviction has raised accusations of social cleansing and cultural vandalism intended to help pave the way for encroaching gentrification of the area.
While Leith Depot only opened five years ago, its refurbished downstairs bar quickly became a favourite watering hole for the local musical fraternity, with the bar’s tiny upstairs room becoming an affordable open-access home for both local and national artists. This has made the Depot a vital part of Edinburgh’s grassroots music scenes, with activities including monthly refugee benefit shows, film clubs and afternoon gigs that enabled under 18s to attend. If and when the bar and venue are closed, it will leave a social and creative hole in the city’s musical infrastructure not easy to replace.
Drum’s timing in their decision to extend Leith Depot’s lease is curious. As too is the motivation behind such a move. It would have been easy enough to do something similar from day one. As it is, Drum’s apparent willingness to allow an entire block of shop units to lay empty regardless of its fate has left them open to criticism, and any belated show of apparent good will has already been greeted with caution.
While welcoming Leith Depot’s stay of execution, Save Leith Walk issued their own statement expressing their disappointment that ‘the landlord didn’t allow the other businesses, which were successfully trading…to remain open too.’ The statement went on to say that they hoped the announcement was ‘a sign of the developer’s willingness to now work with the community and secure the long-term future of this building so it can continue to be a home for locally-owned, independent shops and businesses.’
In other words, no-one should be lulled into any false sense of security. Drum, like all developers accused by some of ripping the cultural hearts out of major cities like Edinburgh, have deep pockets and expensive lawyers, and can afford to play the long game.
If the Scottish Government’s Reporter rules in Drum’s favour, that will be that. Unlike developers, local communities have no similar right of appeal, and Stead’s Place will be gone forever, replaced by blocks of soulless real estate.
If the Reporter rules against Drum’s appeal, what happens next could be a game-changer. For the last few weeks, residents of Leith postcodes have been able to sign a petition in support of a proposed Community Buy Out of Stead’s Place. Under the 2003 Scottish Land Reform Act, communities are empowered to register an interest in land or buildings when they come up for sale. This is on the proviso that 10 per cent of the registered community are in favour of such a move.
While Drum have not expressed any intention of selling up, leaving the block derelict shouldn’t be an option. This should be especially the case given recent proposals at UK level to allow councils to seize boarded up property and put it into community use.
But this is all a long way off. In the short-term, Edinburgh’s assorted music communities along with civic campaigners can plot their next move while taking advantage of the now free space in Leith Depot. With no gigs booked for October due to the presumed eviction, it’s time once more for Edinburgh’s assorted music communities to rally round, put on shows and fill Leith Depot to its rafters. For the next month, one of the best small venues in the city is there for the taking. Make the most of it while you can.
Leith Depot will remain open until October 31. Events this weekend feature Kat Healy and Friends, tonight, 7.30pm; One More Time with Feeling – a farewell gig for Leith Depot with Molly Wyrd, Lou McLean, Suffrajitsu and more, Saturday, 2pm; Reggae Got Soul – Farewell to the Depot, Saturday, 8pm; Leith Depot Presents; Love Live Music 2019, Sunday, 2pm; Stranger Things Have Happened with Joseph Malik, Sunday, 9pm.
The Herald, September 26th 2019