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People Power in the Canongate

The era of free market capitalism saw public spaces sold for private profit and community needs coming second to the interests of big business. But some communities fought back. Edinburgh Canongate Community activist Ally McAvoy talks about their struggle and why the tide may be turning in favour of people power.

One day when my gas fire broke down and the council gas fitter came, he said to me “Is your house getting knocked down? I heard they are building a hotel here”. I laughed at the ridiculousness; I live in a Listed B building on the Royal Mile. The council would never knock houses in the Royal Mail of Edinburgh!

About a week later I saw in our local shop a leaflet – it appeared to be true, homes in the Canongate were to be knocked down including two listed buildings, it appeared though it wasn’t to be my house but my neighbour’s further down the street.


A developer called Mountgrange (Caltongate) Plc had approached the council to develop a master plan for a large part of the north side of the Canongate. The area needed developed. Forty years ago in the area there was a SMT bus garage and a fruit market. However the fruit market left in the 60s and the bus garage closed in the late 70s. The space became a car park during the week and a car boot sale at the weekend, and above it was a nightclub in the shape of the Bongo Club where artists came together around the ‘Out of the Blue’ group. Next to the Bongo club was the Old Sailors Ark, a 1930s listed building built to give food, warmth and shelter to seafarers and later the poor of the Canongate. Today it still runs as a café for homeless people. The interior of the building is in the art deco style but the exterior is influenced by the Arts and Craft movement resembling a spooky castle. Part of the building has been empty for a few years most recently being used as a neck tie factory.

Adjacent to the Sailor’s Ark is housing built in the 1930s by the City Architect, Ebeneezer Macrae – good quality council tenements built from the left over stone from Old St Andrew’s House – the Scottish Government building. Mr Macrae was very important in building many of the late 1920s, 1930s and 40s schools and council housing in Edinburgh – indeed the council schemes that are the most sought after and pleasant are Macrae designs. The house I was born in was a Macrae tenement and I later lived in a Macrae scheme. Macrae is an unsung hero of Edinburgh but none of his buildings are listed and despite them being good quality stone buildings they are being knocked down as part of re-generation or indeed for PPP/PFI schools. He had a great vision for the Edinburgh working class, he wanted them to live in good quality homes and attend spacious schools.


The Macrae tenements that are to be knocked down in the Canongate are being demolished to make way for a five star hotel. Half the flats were bought through the right to buy; the others have remained as council homes. Finally just around the corner was a sandstone C Listed building which once had been the Canongate Primary School and later a technical college. It too had been targeted for demolition. These buildings were all to be demolished to build – wait for it – a 5 star hotel, conference centre, luxury office blocks, luxury retail and luxury homes (there was some promise of social housing but it did not meet the needs of the community).

For those of you who do not know the Canongate, it is the east end of the Old Town of Edinburgh, at the foot of the Royal Mile. It is the same street the Scottish Parliament and Holyrood Palace are on. It is an important historic area but most importantly it is our home. Canongate was a separate burgh until 1856; Canongate had resisted becoming part of Edinburgh as long as it could. It lay outside the Edinburgh city walls, and has always had a largely residential character, which it has retained to this day. Where much of the upper part of the Royal Mile has tourist shops at ground level, the Canongate has residential access doors and windows to dwellings.


Friedrich Engels wrote about the Canongate in the “Conditions of the English Working Class” (sic) where he describes the conditions of the working class at the north back of the Canongate – Calton, where immigrants and migrants lived in squalid conditions.

Housing development had continued into the twentieth century, on a reasonably large scale, much of it well designed and contributing in a positive way to the area.

However the Canongate had stopped being the robust community it once was about a decade or so ago, as many of the residents had moved out through the Right to Buy – particularly to move to bigger homes (the houses are particularly one and two bedroom homes). As the locals and families moved out so did the shops - the co-op, the bank, the fishmonger, the sweetie shop, the butcher, the baker - all gone. Many of the homes sold were bought to become holiday lets or second homes - a transient community was out trumping the local and indigenous community. Over the years it had become noticeable that in our community a lack of simple support services such as decent provision for rubbish storage, play space for children and shops to buy food. Most of the back greens and open space has fallen into disrepair or is being used by local businesses as bin storage.

Common Good

On the north side of the Canongate, there is identified Common Good Land. The Common Good and its account are managed by the City of Edinburgh Council on behalf of the owners, the city’s residents; basically these are lands and assets that are held for the common good of the people. The Canongate Community Forum’s secretary, Sally Richardson became one of three petitioners calling on the Scottish Government for greater protection and legislation for Scotland’s Common Good, when it was discovered that the former vegetable market on East Market Street, which forms part of the land deal to Caltongate developers Mountgrange was Common Good.

Save Our Old Town

With this background some of the neighbours and other interested people had set up a campaign called Save Our Old Town (SOOT) – with a campaign blog called the Independent Republic of the Canongate (a pun about our independence status before 1856 and our royal neighbours.) We also set up a community based forum to discuss more community focussed issues - The Canongate Community Forum, which was set up in 2005.

SOOT was a genuine broad based campaign – made up from not only the local community but also historians, conservationists, architects, town planners, artists and people who had lived in the Canongate or had a relative who once lived here. So many people were outraged by the disregard for the community and history of the Old Town that it was quite an easy campaign to build, and literally thousands of people voiced their concerns and were incredulous both at the council and the developers. Many people said “but you can’t knock down listed buildings” - but we found out that you can and with the assistance of Historic Scotland.


The council alongside the developers went into a period of statutory consultation. However it was nothing short of a propaganda campaign – if you couldn’t or wouldn’t agree with the plans then you were seen as a NIMBY (not in my back yard). The developers and the council were obviously working together to push through the development - they were able to present the most horrific of modern plans, boxes and boxes of plans. It would have been impossible to understand the plethora of plans that were presented if there were not town planners and architects involved in the campaign it would have been impossible to understand. The legislation says communities should be involved in planning and that there was to be consultation but it is near impossible to engage with it due to the volume and complexity.

SOOT did decipher them and promoted what the plans really meant and SOOT was able to agitate against them but it was difficult. There needed to be education about the planning legislation, the history of the area, the World Heritage Site, what conservation was and the campaign to save the common good land. We used the local press and radio, held big public meetings with over 100 in attendance, used the internet – email lists, facebook, myspace and in doing so there were 1800 material objections.

Social Housing

Despite the material objections, the campaign and the delegations to the council, in February 2008 the Planning Committee gave planning permission to demolish the buildings. They argued that there was “economic justification” and proposed to build all the buildings planned by the developer with few modifications. The developer had said it was an “all or nothing” development. The Planning committee were dazzled by promises of a Brave New World of posh hotels, stylish coffee shops, a public square and a promise of £330 million worth of investment. To the campaign it seemed like the Emperor’s New Clothes – we could see through it but the councillors and planners could not. Building “luxury” shops away from Princes Street made no sense when Princes Street (Edinburgh’s main shopping street) had empty shops. The community did not want a hotel and a conference centre. It needed and wanted more social housing particularly family housing and resources for the community.


In response to this the community needed to do its own research and evaluation to put together an alternative plan. So we sought a small grant from Scottish Communities Action Research Fund (SCARF) to do our own consultation and in May/June 2008 we opened a community shop with a programme of events to encourage as many people as possible to participate. The Canongate Community Forum have produced a report on the project and our findings – which can be read at – look for Canongate Project Report.

Our surveys showed that:

The key outcomes were:

  1. Housing
    We need a city centre that we can live in, retain the mixed residential population
  2. Community facilities
    There is no support for facilities for residential population
  3. Public space
    There is no public responsibility for public spaces, we need more safe public and usable green spaces in the Old Town. We want the privatisation of the public spaces to stop.
  4. Economic development
    Support smaller independent and start up businesses. There is a need to identify opportunities and sites for community development.
  5. Planning & Regulation
    Clear lack of democracy in the planning system, the new planning framework is failing to address undemocratic decision making. Urban communities can’t have community “buy outs”. Need better stewardship of Common Good Land and Assets.


SOOT did all we could to fight our battle, after the Planning Committee agreed every single application – we hoped that the Scottish Government would have called a Public Enquiry, after all the Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the council sought World Heritage Status for the Old Town and New Town in 1996 and were successful).

SOOT and other worried people asked UNESCO to investigate and in November 2008 UNESCO sent a delegation to investigate – had the council breached its agreement with UNESCO? We believed it had. We await their report however early hints are that they have been favourable to our position and UNESCO are worried about the Caltongate site. The full report will be publicly available in the summer of 2009. It should be noted though that when campaigners from Budapest asked UNESCO to investigate a similar development, after they put forward their report it led to officials including the Mayor being charged with fraud after it was exposed that there was fraudulent activity around selling council land!

An activist also complained to the EU that the council had not offered to sell public land on the open market and had favoured only one developer – seemingly this is a breach of the 1957 Treaty of Rome that supports the free market, i.e. governments and governmental bodies cannot favour only one business.

Crisis hits Developers

In February 2009 it was reported that Mountgrange was £24 million in the red, their auditors felt they were on the precipice of bankruptcy, however their PR company said they were going to borrow money from the Royal Bank of Scotland! Since the end of last year there has been report after report in the papers and on the evening news about the crisis of capitalism, empty new build homes, shops going into receivership, conference centres losing money and hotels with empty rooms. It does not look good for Mountgrange at all. If reports of Caltongate’s death are not grossly exaggerated then it may become just a bad memory, a bad dream to wake up from. Our beloved community may be snatched from the jaws of the crocodile giving us the opportunity to shape a development that meets the need of the community, recognises its historical nature and importance to the rest of the world.

It is really important that we don’t just sit back - we need to put forward our alternative, as Karl Marx says “Philosophers have interpreted the world – the point is to change it”, we have interpreted our community and now we need to change it. SOOT have not decided what we will do yet but whatever it is it will be a People’s Plan – by the people, for the people, with the people – driven not for profit but for genuine need.

At this point we have no money, no investment but we do have ideas and a community behind us. Most of us got involved against an ugly and unsympathetic development and we might have won – we can’t say yet but whatever happens we have a community that has needs and we have a say in what they are. We have no plans just now but I am sure something will happen. Watch this space for how we grow our community assets rather than sell them to the first spiv with promises of speculative capitalism.

For more information

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