Portobello Plan P Talk – October 2005



A Radical Vision For Sustainability Through Urban Land Reform


Talk given by Justin Kenrick of PEDAL (Portobello Energy Descent and Land Reform Group) at Big Things on the Beach’s first Imagine Portobello Day, Portobello Community Centre, 29th October 2005


[Note of caution: We were not able to pursue these ideas for the site due to other comitments at the time; but many of the ideas are now bearing fruit in other ways]


1. A Radical Vision for the Ex-Scottish Power Site?


Since public inquiries only allow for technical not community-based objections the developers will doubtless be able to find a way to meet the technical objections lodged at the public inquiry and go ahead with a development which will enhance their profits to the detriment of Portobello.


The initiative for such a vision would have to come from the Portobello community and would have to mobilise widespread national popular support in order to succeed. There is a strong natural justice argument for expanding rural land reform so that urban communities also gain the right to buy areas of land that are significant to the livelihood and well-being of local communities.


(a) Historical Precedent: Rural Land Reform


The push for rural land reform came hand in hand with the push for particular rural communities to reclaim ownership and their futures (e.g. in Assynt and Eigg). A push for urban land reform could go hand in hand with a community on the ground identifying and campaigning for a better future. A push for Portobello community right to buy the ex-Scottish Power site would need to involve a change in the law in favour of urban land reform.


Rural land Reform succeeded because it tapped into a powerful popular sense that people should be able to control their own destinies rather than suffer at the whim of absentee landowners or profit-makers. Rural land reform succeeded because such communities were and are committed to ensuring the social and ecological sustainability of their locality.


(b) Vision: Urban Sustainability


One possible vision for what could be created on the site could be an urban eco-village (e.g. Living Alternative Futures) within a broader Centre for Alternative Futures. This could be an educational local, national and international tourist attraction like the Centre for Alternative Technology in mid-Wales, or the Eden Project in Cornwall.


At the heart of such a Portobello Centre for Alternative Futures (or P-CAF) there could be:

(i)                  Eco-Village: demonstrating living alternative futures, including:

·        Exemplary car-free living urban eco-village, including social housing

·        Integrated use of solar power, wind power, grey water reed beds and permaculture market gardens

(ii)                Eco-Livelihoods: demonstrating sustainable livelihoods, including:

·    Site for a permanent Farmers Market

·    Recycling centre reshaping, reselling items from Seafield dump, etc.

·    Arts, crafts, music and educational centre

(iii)               Eco-Future hands-on exhibitions: demonstrating contrasting alternative futures (from Sustainable to Extinction depending on the choices we make now).

·        If the site could be expanded to include the current Pitz football pitches and run down to the burn then this might include:

(i)      A demonstration small holding or City Farm (using water power), &

(ii)    An indoor exhibition built around connections between Scotland, Scandinavia, etc. It could include a room kept at very low temperatures so that a miniature ice-covered exhibit of the North Pole and the current and possible changes occurring due to Climate Change could be simulated. It could appeal to all ages.


To put it bluntly (and thinking of climate change in particular): unless we can explore and demonstrate viable sustainable urban ways of living then there is little hope of a future for humans. Paradoxically, our best hope for the intelligent use of the ex-Scottish Power site may lie in widespread public desire for a sustainable urban future to be demonstrably possible.


2. Visioning Portobello in 2020?


(c) Peak Oil and The Example of Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan


Although the thought of Climate Change often paralyses people into inaction or denial (since we often feel that there is nothing we can do as individuals about such a global problem) the growing awareness that the world’s oil supply is running out can have the opposite effect. Kinsale in Ireland provides an excellent example of a town where the coming descent from peak world oil production has galvanised the town into planning how they can decrease their dependence on oil production, and increase their ability as a community to rely on renewable energy, on locally produced food, and on local production, skills and resources. They have become aware that we need to prepare for the rapid reduction in the availability of cheap oil by reducing our dependency on this finite resource. In the UK oil and gas supply 85% of our energy, energy which we rely on to produce, process and transport our food from distant sources to drive-in supermarkets. As energy becomes more expensive, our food system will need to revert to local production and organic (non-oil based pesticide) methods, and the economic system will need to be reinvented along sustainable lines. Instead of measuring wealth according to economic growth (as expressed in our ability to fly away for distant holidays, and to buy cheap food from distant continents) we will need to measure our quality of life:

·        by the strength of the communities we live in;

·        by the amount of creative leisure time we have;

·        by our ability to live in a way which preserves and improves the social and ecological environment; and

·        by our inventiveness in making use of the resources we have to ensure full and satisfying employment and full and satisfying lives for us all. 


Ironically, all these positive changes needed to take account of Peak Oil are the same ones needed to help slow and stop Climate Change, and instead of trying to embark on these changes under the shadow of a nightmarish future, we can undertake them collectively in a way that actively increase our quality of life in the present and contributes an example of what is possible.


(d) A Workshop as an Extended Tea Break!


The workshop approach used by the people of Kinsale to come up with a clear 15 year plan to wean themselves off their dependency on oil and gas, and to create a sustainable future for their community, involved an approach to public meetings based on the assumption that the most useful part of any meeting is the tea break rather than the important speeches by the so-called experts! We would hope to use the same approach, so that the meetings to create an Energy Descent Plan – possibly including planning a campaign to reclaim the ex-Scottish Power site – are not depleting but are energising. That way they can be a chance for people to brainstorm, listen to each other, and come up with creative ideas.


There will be showings of the film ‘The end of Suburbia’ (about the likely consequences of Peak Oil) prior to this (see overleaf for times). At the start of the meeting we can collectively identify the areas we feel will need to be addressed, and then create a space where people can move freely between small discussion groups focusing on these themes. In Kinsale some of the themes included: economy and livelihoods, education, youth and community, tourism, transport, waste, energy, food, housing, health, marine resources.


What we would hope would come out of this would be not simply a plan for the community ownership and sustainable development of the area which was going to become a superstore (and also possibly the Pitz site) but a plan that would include the whole of Portobello.


Multiple Benefit approach:

Central to the Energy Descent approach is the notion of developing areas and projects with multiple-benefits in mind.

For example: Seafront

If the seafront was to become part of a new Bluebelt for Edinburgh then we might want to use rocks and rubble to turn the concrete seafront into an undulating ridge which could be fronted on the seaside by dunes and Marin grass, and covered in grass and a walk and cycle way running along a raised Prom planted with fruit trees and bushes. This green fringe could spread back into open spaces such as the current play parks (play parks which could then be built on top of it), and it’s height could be reduced where there are flats adjacent to the prom. This would then provide a way of integrating the city with the Forth, provide a much more attractive tourist and local amenity, as well as providing future fruit and if necessary the basis for an effective future sea wall.

Another example: Bringing in Expertise

We could invite the extremely successful Centre for Alternative technology in Wales and the Eden Project in Cornwall to become centrally involved in providing expertise to advise the sustainable energy and exhibition aspects of the sustainable use of the site. This would enable us to benefit from their expertise, but also give their expertise and practical ideas a showcase presence in a city which attracts hundreds of thousands of international tourists every year.


Trolleys dashed

Below is an edited letter by Stephen Hawkins of the Portobello Campaign against the Superstore in the Guardian: Wednesday June 8th 2005:

I believe that the supermarket chains have reached saturation point and that the tide has turned in favour of support for local high streets – where they still exist. Here in Portobello, developers proposed a 7,900 sq metre superstore outside the town centre that would have destroyed the vitality of the existing shopping centre. After strong local opposition, the development has been refused on appeal. Our fight did not come cheap. We had to raise over £20,000 to pay for expert witnesses to present evidence to the public inquiry, but this reflected the total commitment of the community against the proposal. We were also fortunate in having the support of Friends of the Earth and Joanna Blythman, among others. Not all communities are lucky enough to have the resources to fight, but why should they have to? The answer is that government policy is so far behind the situation on the ground, and planning strategists have failed to analyse the consequences of the supermarket stranglehold in the US. We need to ensure that we do not repeat their mistakes.


3. So, Is Radical Change Possible?


When you look forward in time, radical change always seems impossible; when you look back, it always appears as though it was inevitable – what makes the creative difference in the present?


You? Me? Us?!