02 February 2008

Uneasy mix of old and new

By Eric Jansson
Published by Financial Times, 2 February 2008

John Arthur remembers a time when his delivery route was not nearly so long. As a volunteer for a South Leith church, he does the rounds pushing parish magazines through the letterboxes of a community that was traditionally situated in the area immediately around the church.

But Arthur has been having to put in more miles. The residential area of Leith, where Scotland’s capital Edinburgh meets the water, is bursting its traditional boundaries. Buoyed by a wave of property development, it now extends beyond the docks on to the vast harbours that once hummed with the sounds of shipbuilding, transport and trade. Having lost their traditional industries in the second half of the 20th century, these expanses of land today constitute a prime brownfield site for housing.

Indeed, a whole new city is rising out on the breakwaters, tower block by tower block – Leith in name but different in every other way to the stone-built sailors’ town of 20 years ago. Pending planning permission for a further 16,000 homes, Leith might soon become Scotland’s fastest-growing community.

What worries old Leithers is whether such momentous change will be for the good. Arthur says his first attempt to deliver the parish magazine to Platinum Point – one of the new harbour developments – left him scratching his head. “At first, I could not get in the door. There was simply nobody there. Then, finally, when I did find someone, they told me not to bother. That had never happened before. The idea of being neighbourly does not seem to be there,” he says.

Reshaping communities is often awkward but Leith faces particular difficulties in this regard, thanks to its rapid expansion. In recent years it has seen the Shore, formerly an industrial dockside area, converted into an attractive social hub lined with restaurants and pubs. A large administrative complex at Victoria Quay opposite the Shore, opened by the Scottish Executive in 1996, has boosted the white-collar influx to the area as prices elsewhere in Edinburgh have continued to rise sharply. Shoppers and tourists are also lured out of the city centre by Ocean Terminal, a stylish shopping and entertainment centre that doubles as a permanent mooring for the decommissioned royal yacht, Britannia.

There is no problem accommodating these newcomers. Over the past century an exodus of employers and workers has shrunk the local population by about 60,000, to its current level of 27,000.

Leith’s cultural and architectural capacity to accommodate newcomers is less obvious. Suffused for centuries with a sniggering separatism from Edinburgh proper, with which it has long had an asymmetrical relationship, residents are asking whether Leith can absorb a mass invasion of yuppie commuters and condo-style tower blocks without losing its essential character.

The answer is that it quite possibly can. Edinburgh has tried before to tame Leith, which officially became part of the capital city in 1920, but it has never entirely succeeded.

Leith’s freewheeling spirit can be traced back to the days when it was a wild port town where capitalism was raw, crime was rife and convicted pirates met their ends at a gallows on the sand. It always contrasted sharply with the royal burgh up the hill and culturally Edinburgh has never really subdued it.

In spite of the demolition of large areas of “slums” in the 1960s and early 1970s, the area has retained its reputation for edginess. As recently as 1993, Leith was the setting for Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting, about a community of drug addicts. Most of the dilapidated haunts described in the book have since been demolished or updated. Yet a stroll past the barbers, butchers and Polish grocers of Leith Walk and Great Junction Street is still anything but bland and the drunks that jokingly menace the passers-by have not been totally chased away.

With its tight networks of Victorian houses cut through by little alleyways, much of old Leith retains a traditional look. This is likely to remain. Most recent constructions, whether towers or pebble-dashed duplexes, look so out of place that they do not fundamentally undermine the old aesthetic. Around Leith Links, a park claimed as the home of golf, a Georgian townhouse with nine bedrooms and a Grade B listing – the Scottish equivalent of Grade II – is advertised for £725,000 by Edinburgh solicitors Simpson & Marwick. Nearby, a mid-19th-century villa with five bedrooms sold recently for £720,000.

New developments in the area are typically cheaper. One of the most attractive, a penthouse apartment located in a freshly converted former “whiskey bond” opposite Ocean Terminal, carries a £299,950 price-tag.

Cheerleaders for the area advocate what they call “Leithal thinking”, which translates roughly as bloody-minded entrepreneurialism flavoured with community spirit. Those who move in say the place has a special feel. “It is an area where on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon the streets are full of people, sitting out and having a drink. There is just a great atmosphere,” says Jonathan More, a solicitor originally from Galashiels, 35 miles south of Edinburgh.

Around the harbour itself prices per sq ft tend to be above £260 for the most popular flats and exceed those at the best properties around Leith Links. And sales are booming in residential complexes such as Platinum Point, The Element and Bryant at Western Harbour.

In many cases the lure of old Leith draws newcomers to these new developments, despite the fact that in some ways they appear out of place. Architecturally, they could pass for tower blocks in Florida or coastal Spain. Each development is unique, yet all come from the same big new-build school of design: lots of glass, smooth white and metallic surfaces with a bit of stone thrown in to suggest solidity.

“Ironically, many of us who are drawn to Leith are drawn in by the old part but most of us are living in the new-builds,” says More, who last year bought a 1,500 sq ft penthouse apartment at The Element for £400,000. He acknowledges that some “young professionals come in and add nothing to the community” but predicts that community spirit and investment values on the harbours will grow over time.

Arthur is hardly alone in feeling that the new developments must make a more concerted effort to forge bonds with old Leith. Richard Murphy, an Edinburgh architect, criticises the new complexes as “sort of distended from Leith”.

“What has tended to happen at the waterfront, generally,” he says, “is that buildings arrive – isolated buildings. That is what we have at Platinum Point. You cannot make a city like that.”

He acknowledges that this could change with time if developers deliver on promises to make the harbours places to “live, work and play”. However, he warns that the microclimate out at the breakwaters is naturally inhospitable. Settlements all along Scotland’s eastern coast are “always set back from the coast a little bit” for this reason.

Indeed, buffeted by stiff, chilly winds off the Forth, the semi-developed areas of the Western Harbour can feel very isolated. Dust, kicked up by construction work, whips around. When gusts blow in, newly installed streetlamps vibrate and jingle along mostly empty roads. The strangeness of the scene bothers few people, for traffic is minimal, and pedestrians are even scarcer. Yet new residents pay handsomely to live here – from £244,000 for one of the less-desirable two-bed flats to more than £1m for a penthouse with four bedrooms.

Whether these investments will hold up, especially when compared with the lower prices available in old Leith, is anyone’s guess, though the developers are naturally optimistic and continue to build.