As the MacEwen Award deadline approaches, Malcolm Fraser returns to the community self-build that he helped bring to fruition – Bridgend Inspiring Growth, commended in last year’s competition
It’s a rare sunny late-summer’s Edinburgh day and I’m at a wee conference on health and wellbeing in the Bridgend marquee. The light is dappling and the birdies are singing; I’m sat on a haybale with flowers all around and can’t think of a better exemplar of wellbeing than right here. Across the court there’s the big old rescued and repurposed farmhouse to retreat to if it turns to sudden winter, with its kitchens and café where folks from the challenged local communities of Craigmillar and the Inch are preparing and serving good food, and on the other side of the court are the community workshops, where people are mending bikes, potting plants and building things.
They like building: I’ve worked with them since 2010, admiring what seemed then the nicest and most-impossible visions for ownership and bottom-up leadership, focused on a part-burnt-out farmhouse at the heart of their community. But government policy came towards them, and we persuaded Edinburgh Council to set aside a chunky residential bid for the site, monetising the community benefit that would accrue so demonstrating best-value – all in advance of the legislation being in place. We funded through the Big Lottery and elsewhere and tendered and built much of it, but they self-built parts such as charring the larch (scary and spectacular) and have gone on to build the marquee (weddings and ceilidhs a speciality as well as conferences) and other surrounding eco-builds. And issued a pioneering community share offer, so we are now community-owned.
In a world of political gloom and government dysfunction the programme of community empowerment in Scotland feels genuinely cheering. With its roots in the Highlands and Islands buy-outs at the end of the last century, that built on a long heritage of crofting legislation, the Act of 2015 gives rights and leverage for communities to step up, that compare favourably with the 2011 Localism Act in England and Wales. The usual caveats apply: that David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is an elective austerity, where government pulls out of its responsibilities and dumps difficult tasks and distressed assets onto vulnerable locals. But Scotland seems to be using subsidiarity positively, harvesting local initiatives through devolving often-productive, not distressed, assets and, critically, the Scottish legislation came with bolstered funding sources, via the Scottish Land Fund and elsewhere, and new organisations to help build local groups’ capacity.
The next step is using community leadership where sites have considerable productive value, to build new forms of community-led housing and neighbourhoods – co-housing, intergenerational housing and self-build – like they do in the Europe we need to keep learning from. The rigidity, torpor and crushing fushionlessness (n. Scots: withered, lacking in energy and invention) of the housebuilding market open an urgent door to this sunny community future.
Malcolm Fraser is director of Fraser/Livingstone Architects. His former practice Halliday Fraser Munro Architects was commended in the MacEwen Awards 2019 for the Bridgend Inspiring Growth project in Edinburgh. The MacEwen Awards 2020 is now open for entries