Banging the Drum – Leith Depot and the Resistible Rise of Stead’s Place

This article by Neil Cooper was first published in Bella Caledonia in March 2019, and is reproduced with permission of the author.
It was somehow fitting that the proposed demolition of Stead’s Place on Leith Walk in Edinburgh was thrown out by City of Edinburgh Council’s planning department during Independent Venue Week. This is the UK-wide initiative designed to showcase grassroots live music venues in the face of potentially being put out of business by encroaching gentrification. One of the Edinburgh venues involved in Independent Venue Week was Leith Depot, which, since opening in 2014 after reinventing its premises from what had been considered to be the worst pub in the city, has quickly grown to become one of the capital’s most significant music venues.
Leith Depot is also one of the last remaining businesses on Stead’s Place, the two-storey 1920s sandstone block bought wholesale by Drum Property Group with the aim of flattening it. In its place, Drum proposed building a five-storey construction that would house 471 student flats, a 56-bedroom hotel, 53 so-called affordable flats – a misleading piece of civic newspeak that points up a form of wealth-based social cleansing – and business and retail units.Once Drum moved in, it was indicated to all sitting tenants that their leases would not be renewed once they run out this coming October. In the months leading up to last week’s four and a half hour planning meeting most businesses moved on, their once thriving shop-fronts boarded up by their former landlords. Having forced businesses hands, if Drum’s intent was to uglify the area even more by such actions, their failure was compounded by the increasingly entertaining graffiti painted onto the boards alongside enlargements of letters of support from local councillors, MPs and MSPs.

On the day of the meeting, a noisy protest by supporters of the Save Leith Walk campaign outside the City Chambers was punctuated by the sort of live drumming which has been the mainstay of grassroots protests for decades. Any perceived irony in using the word ‘drum’ as a creative force rather than one associated with knocking down buildings was probably unintentional.

With council officers recommending that Drum’s proposals be accepted by the planning committee, also apparently unintentional was the failure of officials to put into the public domain what was described as being a ‘scathing’ report on the proposals. This had been drawn up in January 2018 by Edinburgh Urban Design Panel, a council run body made up of senior planners, architects, heritage bodies and academics to provide design advice to planners and developers.

While an un-named council official apologised for what was described as an oversight, how such a high profile case as Stead’s Place had fallen prey to such carelessness, potentially damaging Save Leith Walk’s argument, is a mystery. As indeed were some of the figures that seemed to point to a high level of support for Drum’s proposals among the city’s student fraternity.

Whatever the facts, it’s fair to say that Drum haven’t had an easy ride from their opponents. In a column in the Edinburgh Evening News in September 2018, Drum’s group managing director Graham Bone described much of the criticism aimed their way as ‘ill-informed, politically or personally motivated and on one occasion, downright offensive.’ Well, diddums. While any unwarranted personal abuse is totally unacceptable, whatever was levelled against Drum is unlikely to be more offensive than buying up someone else’s neighbourhood, waving 50 million quid around and expecting everyone to welcome you with open arms.

In the same article, Leith Depot was singled out as being un-co-operative with Drum’s plans. These included a purpose-built music venue, they said, which those running Leith Depot could return to once it was built.

This is what developers like Drum Property Group do. Their plans invariably include some kind of loosely-defined ‘cultural hub’ or ‘arts venue.’ This acts as a reassuring hug to the councils they are applying to that they are somehow enlightened to the need for arts provision for the community they are parachuting into. In reality, their terms are so vague, and come with no first-hand knowledge of what running an arts venue or a music venue entails, as to be meaningless. So meaningless, in fact, that by the time the development’s final plans are drawn up they have usually disappeared completely.

In the case of Stead’s Place, Drum appeared to believe it was perfectly feasible to turf Leith Depot onto the street in October of this year to find a new home. They then presumed it would be easy enough for them to move seamlessly into the new space in a couple of years’ time having lost two years’ worth of revenue, and be bloody well grateful.

Such presumptions betray a wholesale lack of knowledge, both of how small music venues work, and, more significantly, perhaps, how small music venues work specifically in Edinburgh. First of all, anyone taking even a cursory glance at the city’s fragile musical infrastructure will recognise within five minutes that small venues don’t grow on whatever trees the council hasn’t yet cut down. It could take those running Leith Depot months if not years to find appropriate premises that work as well as their current home.

Secondly, what Leith Depot has built up since it opened is unique. The success of its upstairs venue wasn’t planned. Yet by taking a once scary establishment and transforming it into somewhere accessible for anyone wanting to put on an event, it has helped foster a thriving musical community and given it a much-needed social centre.

Every scene needs a focal point, and that is usually a venue with a pub attached or vice versa. This has been the case in Edinburgh at various points, when the likes of the Tap O’Lauriston and Cas Rock provided something similar to what Leith Depot does now. Developers can’t legislate for such activity simply by putting up a new building. Nor do they appear to care enough to want to, and any claims to the contrary are difficult to take seriously. It should be noted as well that both the Tap and the Cas Rock have long since been demolished.

While the unanimous rejection of Drum’s proposals is a major victory, those who so actively and effectively opposed it shouldn’t rest on their laurels. Drum can afford to play the long game. They have expensive lawyers, and the company has already indicated in Construction Weekly that they will appeal against last week’s decision, possibly taking it to the Scottish Government. As current laws stand, if the committee’s decision had gone the other way, community groups arguing against Drum’s proposals would not have had the same luxury of appeal.

All of which points up the glaring imbalance in planning laws in favour of developers. There are precedents here. In 2016, the Scottish Government recorder overturned City of Edinburgh Council’s decision to reject landowner Glovart Holdings Ltd’s attempts to demolish the Earthy restaurant in the Canonmills area of Edinburgh. This demonstrated how easy it is for the Scottish Government to reject local democracy when it suits them, and Stead’s Place may yet end up flattened.

In the meantime, Drum can simply dig in their heels until they get their own way, letting their empty properties go to wrack and ruin, and either continue to carry out their intended eviction of sitting tenants in October or else hike up rents until they are priced out of the area. Again, this is what developers do.

Take a look at the former Odeon cinema on South Clerk Street, which was once owned by Duddingston Leisure/ Duddingston House Properties. As Duddingston’s various attempts to turn the building into flats were rejected, the building lay empty for twelve years. Duddingston, incidentally, are also the company proposing to turn the iconic Old Royal High School into a hotel.

An attempt by Susan Boyle’s brother Gerry to turn the South Clerk Street Odeon into an upmarket cabaret venue failed, and since 2015 the building has been owned by the G1 group, whose much vaunted plans to reopen the space as a cinema and restaurant have yet to bear fruit.

Look too at the site of what was once Studio 24, the Calton Road alternative music-based nightclub, which was eventually sold to developers in 2017. This followed a decade of attrition after new residential properties were built without sound-proofing in a once empty thoroughfare surrounding the venue. This is a stone’s throw from the ongoing New Waverley development that saw the closure and demolition of the former bus station that formed the original home of the Bongo Club on New Street. Almost two years on since the club’s closure, Studio 24’s colourful customised façade fronts a still empty building, with future plans for the site not known at this address at least.

Whatever happens next regarding Stead’s Place, it’s worth keeping an eye on Drum’s recent form elsewhere in terms of buying up thriving properties with a view to converting them into cash cows. While the Stead’s Place soap opera gathered pace, in 2018, Drum quietly picked up St Margaret’s House, Edinburgh’s biggest independent arts complex, which houses studios and numerous small businesses in a London Road office block. With planning permission already in place, Drum look set to convert the building into – wait for it – student flats. This is tempered by the inevitable salve of affordable housing and unspecified ‘facilities for the benefit of the local community.’

The fact that developers are allowed to destroy businesses and community amenities in this way points up an imbalance which suggests local democracy – or any democracy come to that – is being subverted by big businesses only interested in making a buck, and who aren’t overly concerned by the damage they cause along the way.

This is far from unique to Edinburgh. Take a walk through the city centre building sites of Liverpool, London, Glasgow and beyond to see a similarly styled set of new-builds in progress. Like Edinburgh, their soul-less and homogenised exteriors have been sanctioned by local authorities in thrall to cavalier spivs in suits who talk big and promise the world before carving up the loot. The communities the developers buy up may be rough around the edges, but that roughness is part of a living, breathing character developed organically over decades. For those same men in suits to rip the throbbing hearts from them with a toxic mix of bulldozers and bullshit is social and cultural vandalism of the worst kind.

Leith’s victory over Drum has not only shown an impassioned degree of people power from the various tentacles of opposition to Drum’s proposal. It has also exposed the arrogant presumption of developers the world over that they will get their own way no matter what. But if this is to have a more long-term effect so the power is shifted into local communities, changes in the law are required as a matter of urgency.

First of all, community groups must have the same right of appeal as developers. Secondly, if developers have their plans unanimously rejected as Drum have with Stead’s Place, the undoubtedly sore losers must not be allowed to effectively hold local authorities to ransom by allowing their property to decline into an unoccupied slum.

If commercial properties are left empty by developers, local authorities should have the power to undertake a compulsory purchase order on the property and prosecute the developers for wilful neglect. Sitting tenants such as Leith Depot should be subject to a rent cap, with any attempt to increase the costs of their lease at more than standard market value deemed illegal.

Law-savvy property types will no doubt find such proposals by turns hilarious, ridiculous, ill-informed, utopian and unworkable. Maybe they’re right, but once again, that’s what developers do.

There have been a lot of articles written about Leith in the last couple of years. Many have trilled out the sort of achingly aspirational nonsense about how it is one of Scotland and the UK’s ‘coolest places to live’. Whilst by no means deliberate, such coffee-table fluff becomes an accidental form of soft propaganda for Drum and their ilk. Demand for overpriced rabbit hutches knocked up on the cheap and flogged off to those desperate for the kind of gritty authenticity a certain postcode affords them is boosted to the max by such gushing colour supplement catnip.

Conversely, attacks on some of the initiatives undertaken by grassroots groups in the area are similarly missing the point. It is those at local authority and government level who allow developers to use the likes of Leith Depot as a shortcut to gentrification who should be challenged, not the various micro-communities living and working in the area.

Of course, Leith is changing, and no-one wants to preserve it in aspic, but Leith residents and those who enjoy its various amenities don’t need the men from Drum to tell them how to do things. Yet Drum’s attempt to demolish Stead’s Pace is arguably part of a more dubious ideology. What happens, after all, when the bottom falls out of the student accommodation market? Given the forthcoming Brexit omnishambles, in terms of international exchanges, this is likely to happen sooner rather than later. Might the city’s numerous student developments be left to rot, perhaps? Au contraire.

As one on-site construction worker who actually puts these concrete boxes together has told me, structurally speaking, it is easy enough to knock through a couple of walls and convert them into luxury apartments with a minimum of bureaucratic fuss. Such a move could be seen as a long-term strategy to create even more inner-city social apartheid of the sort highlighted both in Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis, and J.G. Ballard’s novel, High-Rise. What was once dystopian fantasy, it seems, is now dangerously close to fact.

Perhaps it always was, and those behind it just don’t care enough to try and hide it anymore now they’ve been found out. More fool them. The protests outside Edinburgh’s City Chambers and events at Leith Depot throughout Independent Venue Week were a clarion call. As those who thought they could knock down Stead’s Place un-challenged have just discovered, a different drum is beating a little louder every day.

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