LAND is a controversial subject in Scotland but community buy-outs are being used to give power back to the people.

So far they have mostly taken place in islands and rural areas but now a new wave of community buy-outs are being spearheaded in urban areas.

One that has just been completed successfully is in Wester Hailes in Edinburgh where the WHALE Arts Centre has been working for decades with the support and help of local residents.

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“It’s really exciting and a new way of thinking about how communities have ownership of what’s on their doorstep,” said interim CEO Kate Griffin.

“It’s a solution that does not ­involve selling council assets to the highest bidder but keeps community ­resources within the community which is ­really important.”

Since 2000, the charity has been housed in its own building, funded by the then Scottish Arts Council.

WHALE Arts in Edinburh’s Wester Hailes is celebrating after a successful community buyoutWHALE Arts in Edinburh’s Wester Hailes is celebrating after a successful community buyout (Image: Supplied)

However, the centre did not own the land it was built on which was leased cheaply from the council.

Conscious that this could change at any time, with the rent either ­being raised to an unaffordable level or through a sale of the land, WHALE Arts decided to explore the possibility of buying the land from the council.

This aim was cemented by the ­Covid pandemic when third-sector organisations like WHALE Arts were left to pick up the pieces after many council and government services stopped overnight.

“We went from providing a ­sit-down meal for around 50 people once a week to delivering hundreds of hot meals, as well as food parcels and resources for both kid and adults,” said Griffin.

WHALE Arts also supported ­people who were illegally evicted and others who were unable to visit their children in care.

“We started hosting social work contact visits because all of that ­infrastructure just went and the idea of people not being able to have ­contact with their kids felt absolutely heartbreaking,” Griffin said.

“It’s interesting that Wester Hailes did not do as badly as some other places during the lockdowns because there were already lots of third sector organisations in the background and when the chips were down we were still here.”

As part of their bid for a Community Asset Transfer (CAT), WHALE Arts carried out a huge consultation and found that 97% of the ­respondents backed the buy-out.

“It was really exciting for us that we had that kind of backing from the community,” said Griffin.

An approach for funding was made to the Scottish Land Fund and local councillors supported the bid to buy the land.

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Now the CAT has gone through, WHALE Arts is able to invest in the building and upgrade it for the future. As it stands, it has an arts workshop space, a performance space and a stage, a meeting space and digital tech hub, as well as a community garden, pop-up cafe and exhibition space.

Tenants who share the building and work with WHALE Arts ­include Score Scotland, Starcatchers and Sistema Big Noise Wester Hailes.

Griffin said it had been clear through the consultation that local residents recognised the importance of creativity as a way of supporting people’s wellbeing and mental health.

“They felt the arts centre was a safe creative space where they could come and make friends and feel part of something as well as have fun ­doing creative things,” she said.

“And ownership is really ­important when it comes to culture – the idea that culture belongs to ­everybody, rather than being something that ­other people in other places take part in. A lot of what we do is about ­promoting mental health and ­wellbeing and ­creativity is an ­important tool for that.”

Griffin added: “Our CAT is part of an approach where people in the community decide what they need and want rather than outside ­agencies coming in and telling them. Decision-making should be driven by communities and local people and not by people from the outside.

“It is about the community in Wester Hailes making decisions about what they value and want to have a stake in because they know what is relevant and most important to them.”