We have kept the community, our Councillors and the Council itself in touch with the emerging plan set out in New Life for the Heart of Portobello, our proposal.
What happens next is for the Council to decide. We know that our long-term goal of asset transfer is already happening in the City but usually in relation to a building with an existing body actively using it. There is not a such body for Portobello Town Hall and that will have to be created. Some of the uses that people have talked about require notice and planning, for example weddings.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – what we have proposed is possible, now we have to make it probable, if the Council agrees.
The Portobello Central team made a second visit to the Town Hall on 5 October, with possible consultants, to remind ourselves of what might be needed to re-open. The lights were on, the heating was running and we confirmed to ourselves that the project was a runner.
We were there because we think the Council is preparing to set a closing date for proposals, probably in November (our guess).
Meanwhile, Portobello Central Ltd (as we now are) is putting together the final draft of our proposal, building very heavily on the 300 Conversations exercise we ran over the summer. As this is to be a proposal on behalf of the Portobello community, we will publish this shortly for comment and support.
If all goes well, you could be sitting in a seat like this by this time next year.
We need to report what we have done and what is planned – it’s a bit formal but many of you will not know the whole story. We have over 80 subscribers so now is the time to set out our plan and progress towards it.
Our core purpose
To bring back into use Portobello Town Hall, with an emphasis on community management. This is less about preserving a listed building than about providing an active and useful centre to the town. It is also about re-thinking what use can be made of the spaces (as there are more than one) in the current social circumstances. What seemed an uphill task before CV19 is now something of a cliff to climb. That said, our engagement with the Council suggests they look on us as worth talking to. The Council asked for proposals and that is our primary task.
Many of you will know that a group was allowed to roam freely in the Town Hall on 28 March, with Council officers keen for us to see anything and everything. Council reports on condition were made available. Our overall impression was that a lot of work was needed in due course but probably not that much before a limited opening.
Our tentative timetable
September: submit a draft proposal to the Council for comment and discussion.
December: agree the terms of lease with the Council
Create a legal entity, probably a SCIO, capable of signing a lease
April 2021: take entry, make safe, clean, invite prospective users to see round.
October 2021: trial events
December 2021: full programme
We are working to establish the bones of a business plan, to find who might be core users, anchor tenants and so on. We have a website with presences on Facebook (almost 1000 members), Twitter and Instagram. We are aiming to have 300 conversations in 30 days – ranging from up to a dozen in a Zoom room to some 1:1 chats.
On-line surveys are underway, accessible on the website and one specifically for Portobello High School pupils. For those not online, or who prefer to respond on paper, a leaflet has been produced and distributed around town .
Currently all prospective funders are marking time and the signs are not encouraging for a white knight to come over the hill. Engagement has costs but there are some donations. You may have heard that £750,000 – £1million is needed; this is true, to put the Town Hall back into tip-top condition. We don’t think that is needed to re-open but if the building is to be brought into a condition for an extended new life then that sort of sum and more is likely to be necessary. Just taking it back to a 1914 condition is not the right path; for example, a new approach to energy will be essential.
We have kept our working group small, just 7 people, in order to make solid progress. We meet on line twice a week or more. We are bringing in expertise from a wider circle of people with knowledge. In due course, we will assemble groups to look at, for example, how to make the building safe and to re-purpose some of the spaces. We are conscious that there are users still on site, tending allotments.
We are certain that with much more active management and publicity, offering more flexible operational arrangements than the Council was able to provide, we can attract many of the users who have enjoyed the Town Hall in the past. But the thrills of past glory days will be difficult to reproduce under social distancing, if that continues. We have visited Leith Town Hall and been briefed on the effort needed there. We think that our Town Hall is an easier prospect – it is in better condition, in the centre of a lively community and has a recent positive history.
What do we need from you?
We need to show the Council that our proposal (once assembled) has strong community support and grew from community ideas. Active participation in consultation is important. More so is active involvement in finding users and their supporters. If you have an idea, a project, or a friend looking for a venue, please talk up what the Town Hall could offer.
we are having some difficulty in making a list of things that did happen in the Town Hall. If you remember anything, even if you are not sure of the date, let us know – “when was that wedding we went to?”
If we are offered a lease?
At that point we need to create a legal entity, separate from any in Portobello to avoid risk to others. This is likely to be a SCIO – a newish combination of a company limited by guarantee and a charity. That would need trustees and, perhaps, members, but would be able to apply for funding from major funders, such as the Lottery. However, if there is to be no lease, there is no point in setting up such a body – hence our timetable.
We welcome your help now in bringing together a community view and later, we hope, in making the Town Hall an active contributor to Portobello life.
We’ve not asked tightly drawn questions because we don’t want to lose ideas, memories, experiences that people might think don’t fit the mission of bringing the Town Hall back into our community. So we have “no holds barred” results.
Have a look at the Wordle below – it summarises what people have said – the bigger the letters the more people mentioned it. There are surprising omissions – if an activity or event you want is not mentioned here (or is not big enough) please complete the survey form on the 300 Conversations page. If you can, join one of our Zoom chats – lively, short, informal, people like you.
Don’t just assume it will be mentioned – please tell us direct, that’s what makes it usable in our plans
After the first few days of the 300 conversations programme we already have some new directions. The team report:
“An amazing 42 conversations in our first week across survey, social media and online meetings. Some great ideas for future Town Hall use from ping pong clubs to flexible childcare, conferences to world cinema. Strong themes are emerging around providing activities for the 12 to 15/16 age group and making the Town Hall a place that is in constant mixed use, giving the High Street a real buzz.
Can’t wait for next week!
Have a conversation anytime through social media, survey, leaflets or book on to our online get togethers, every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for the next 3 weeks.”
It is amazing what Facebook and social media can do – sometimes it reminds me of French village cafes – lots of people meeting, talking, arguing but underneath being part of a community.
Last week someone posted on Porty People that they had just bought, on Etsy, an interesting new picture of Portobello Baths – and showed their purchase. Immediately, we thought that was just the style for a warm, friendly picture of our favourite Town Hall.
Quickly, we were in touch with the artist, Rhanna Baldwin, who is a Portobello person, danced in the Town Hall, whose family run a hairdresser in Porty. A Match!
Not only that she offered to make the picture and allow Portobello Central to use it as we wish. She is selling the Baths and Town Hall pictures on her Etsy site – if you want your own copies. We are are very grateful to Rhanna. We have put the picture on the website and you will see it in other places too.
Meanwhile we are getting right into our 300 Conversations – you can join in – they are just 30 minute sessions but they give us a real picture of what you want from the Town Hall when it comes back to us. Make yourself a good French-style coffee and book into a session!
We are getting underway to have 300 conversations in 30 days about what people want from Portobello Town Hall. Our websites is open (you know that, you are reading this), our Facebook page has almost 900 members, our mailing list is growing.
“Conversation” can mean anything – a Twitter chat, an email exchange and we are trying out Zoom meetings (which could be 1:1 or a bigger group) and if you have a good way of engaging with us please get in touch.
What do we want to know?
There is a glorious history of over a century of activity: remind us of what that was.
There are the alternatives that you may have been using in recent years
The way in which community life runs is bound to change (at least for some years) so how can the Town Hall, our biggest space, contribute?
And, even if you can’t see how to do what you want to do, let us know and we will find people to work out alternatives.
Sign up to our mailing list – that’s how we can set up our conversation with you.
The Portobello Central Group is now looking at ways we might resume work on making a solid proposal to the City of Edinburgh Council for the Town Hall – probably in the late summer.
To do that we have to re-engage with the community and revise our ideas for using the building in a social-distancing era. We also recognise that the economy is changing, with consequences for everyone. Even so, we reckon that providing a central place for Portobello life is possible, do-able and desirable.
Facebook has been rumbling – is something going to happen to bring the Town Hall back to life?
Well, yes. That’s a bit tentative as there are many things to sort out but so far the group has not hit a showstopper.
The group? At the end of January a small group got together to follow through an excellent meeting held in August 2019 at Bellfield. That meeting revealed just how many different uses there had been for the building and how more could be found.
The job this time is different as the City of Edinburgh seems willing to hand over the building to the right lessee, with repairs to be handled by the new tenant. The Council allowed a wider group including architects, lighting and sound people, prospective users to spend a couple of hours understanding the building, its potential and problems.
Overall, it seems in not bad condition. The rumours (as rumours do) had painted a picture of devastation and imminent collapse – there was not much sign of that. Even so, some has to certify that it safe – and that will happen. Money is needed but not all at once, a phased programme of repairs and refurbishment is being worked up. Leave the complexities to the group.