A Scotland of Better Places: Jennifer, Jayne and John

Yesterday wasn’t a focused Porty Central day. The chat on our internal comms was about visuals and branding and using the huge spaces on either side of the front of the Town Hall to announce our presence. Not an area we know much about yet but well, watch those spaces.

My only Porty Central activity was watching a webinar hosted by the David Hume Institute called ‘A Scotland of Better Places’ by academic Duncan Maclennan and with John Swinney too. The paper can be found here .

Team member Jayne had shared it a while back and I’d noted it in my diary. We’d been holding the date of 1st June at one stage for a public meeting. That meeting has been delayed (waiting till we have spoken to the council) but will still happen, but when that cancelled, I was freed up to attend the talk.

The talk was encouraging. Was thoughtful and sounded quite radical to my ears and fed into what we’ve been trying to do. Resonate Together and Corra Foundation people seemed inspiring talking of ‘citizen centred organisation’ and ‘agenda free space’ – where public spaces don’t always have to be about fixing what is wrong, noting people are prepared to put in huge effort to support their area.

Talk seemed to be of a shift in focus from government thinking about what it delivers to people to how does what is delivered transform the lives of people – wrap public services around people rather than people having to fit into services provided. This was alongside recognition that budget cuts at local level have decimated ability to deliver locally. There was a fair focus on not for profits delivering locally and the role of anchor organisations was discussed.

John Swinney closed on how when Scottish Land Fund buys buildings it creates community capacity. He talked of when you see capacity and aspiration together, it is phenomenal. Is that maybe what we have?

Jennifer’s Blog

Garden Party: Sunday 30th May, with masks, spread apart and haar.

It was the first time some of us had met in real life and we discovered  some of us were taller than we had imagined. It was really lovely to meet in real life and the exercise we got down to – lining up post-its of the jobs to be done and putting them in work streams – would have been nigh on impossible on Zoom. Who could have taken three hours on Zoom anyway?!?

One of our group had developed the metaphor we’ve been kicking around, that we have reached basecamp at Everest; a feat in itself but actually just the start, into a written document. We have our next destination, Camp I (defined trial event) right through to attaining the summit of a full, sustainable building delivering local needs. Even reaching Camp III; building ready and open for business – will be an amazing achievement and might take a few attempts. 

Lots of jobs identified and divided up. Not all needed for a trial event to run but all needed.  The  group worked well together and it was a really enjoyable afternoon. Getting SCIO set up is important next task as well as getting architects report back, even just an interim one.

Have discovered Peter Watton, our main council contact, is off this week. We should hear from the Lottery if we get our ‘Awards for All’ in early June. We discovered Town Centre Fund is no longer available which is a blow but we’ll up our Regeneration fund application for 17 June and reopen conversation with Scottish Land Fund too, who have asked for a date to talk.

There is much more going on but that is  my capture for today.  

Jennifer’s Blog

Back to Blogging: 24 May

This evening we had our regular Monday meeting on Zoom. It was the first time we all got ‘face to face’ since Thursday decision but there had been various celebrations by different members at various points. We took a moment to share where we’d got to and it was down to business. When can we expect to hear from the council officially and what do we expect them to say? What does the ‘accelerate the process’ mean for us? 

We’re planning a strategy away day this Sunday to thrash out our plan, consider governance and to try and set up a structure that works, harnessing volunteer offers too. We need to chase up OSCR about our SCIO application and plan for a public meeting soon too. We’re writing our stage 1 application for the Scottish Government Regeneration fund in partnership with the council. It is due 17th June but we want to get a draft to our council contact this week so as to be able to tweak our bid. It is a highly competitive fund. The National Lottery team will meet first week in June so we should hear about our Awards for All application for £10K to fund a development worker on a project basis. We hope to hear soon enough if we have secured any Town Centre Regeneration funds from the Council – not something we can apply for but we understand we are in the running. We updated SLF on CEC decision and hope to start on their Stage 1 application soon too. The architects are working through their piece and some of the PC team are meeting the business case consultant on Wed.  

Jennifer’s Blog

Proposal Made: Patient Pause

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.

There are gas lights in the Town Hall

Lights! Music! Action?

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.

Progress Report 1

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.

The Portobello Central Working Group 21 June 2020

“New Life for the Heart of Portobello”
16B Bellfield Street, Edinburgh, EH15 2BP

Almost 300! Closing 19 July!

We set ourselves a target of having 300 conversations to be sure we have heard from as wide a group as possible.

We are almost there – the material you have given us has been great, we think we have a real handle of what you would like.

As of today we are 53 short so please roll over to our 300 Conversations page and spend 5 minutes airing your thoughts.

First results from our 300 Conversations

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

The Key Words by 26 June

News from 300

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!