Calum Currie and Portpatrick Village Hall
A case that reveals the high stakes involved in the sell-off of council-run spaces
I met Calum on my first assignment after I left my job in 2016, for the Guardian. I had travelled to Portpatrick, a tiny coastal village of 600-odd people in South West Scotland, where Calum was chair of a group of citizens who were pioneering the use of the Scottish Community Empowerment Act to take ownership of their harbour, which had for years been deteriorating in private hands. The Act was established in 2015 to help local people take control of assets when council resources fall short. Calum and I have been in touch several times in the years since. The story he tells today reveals another side to the act at a time when councils, starved of funding and under pressure from coronavirus, are desperate to get liabilities like crumbling community buildings off their books.
Interviewed October 3, 2016
My name is Calum Currie, I’m the chair of the Portpatrick Harbour Community Benefit Society. For work I’m an offshore oil technician. The Portpatrick Harbour Community Benefit Society came together to secure into local ownership the harbour of Portpatrick and help sustain the local economy. The society was launched after a public meeting, where the community decided to save the harbour into local community ownership in order to secure its future. That was in 2015.
I’m born and bred in Portpatrick and I’ve always had an affiliation with the sea, being a lifeboatman and a fisherman. Securing the harbour for the community was a natural progression for me. I’m fortunate that my work schedule is two weeks in Norway and four at home so that gives ample time to look after the harbour.
My proudest moment would be seeing the community of Portpatrick turning up in their masses at a public meeting and really showing their support and really getting involved. That was Jan 7, 2015, at an extraordinary general meeting when the community discovered for the first time the background to the harbour and the meaning that it had for the community going forward. That’s why I got involved.
I always like to try and find solutions. That’s the type of person I am. I go and find the problem and then I try to find the right solution. I was brought up to not seek the answer but to find the right question. We’re starting to go into the regeneration phase for the harbour. We’re looking to build toilet facilities, expand the business side of the harbour. We’ll hopefully be employing soon.
If the harbour is busier, the village is busier. The restaurants, guest houses, pubs, shops, they all become busier. That means that the local economy becomes healthier, when you’re sitting down to your dinner it’s all connected.
I voted to come out of the EU. I voted to come out because I believe I’m old enough to remember Britain before Europe. I don’t see why we can’t be in touch with Europe financially but hold our own identity.
I see it like the referendum with Scotland and the UK, I voted to stay in the UK because I feel first and foremost I am Scottish but that doesn’t distract from the fact that I’m British. We’re one island. Our infrastructure and our economy is the same.
I can see it might affect grant funding but at the same time I feel confident that the harbour is in a strong position where if we follow our business plan we shouldn’t need to rely on grant funding. The idea with this project is that it is self-sustaining and it can stand up on its own back legs.
What does community mean to me? Diversity. One thing we found here with the share offer is that our community is diverse. We have people from all over the world who have shown quite clearly that they want to be part of this community and they are part of it. They support it, they become involved with it, they follow it and subsequently in this digital era where you can reach people from across the world, they are part of it.
If anyone wants to get involved in running something, it’s an admirable thing to do, but you have to ask yourself if you are ready for the commitment. And then you’ve really got to get professional help and support from the third sector. Most importantly, be transparent, be open and be involved.
Interviewed on January 12, 2021
We had a very busy summer. I haven’t seen it like that since I was six or seven years old.
The village opened back up in June and there were so many caravan parks that were maxed out. The caravan parks were shipping new ones in to sell as quickly as they could. Even the houses – I think at present there is only one house left for sale in the village and there were a lot more than that this time last year.
It was because of staycations, without a doubt. People all said the same thing, they wanted to stay in the country. We have all these parks and holiday houses and the place was absolutely jumping, it was madness. There was this undercurrent of fear that this small community would get caught with the virus. We have something called a Hub Club, people who come together in the community hub that we built in the old fishing sheds on the harbour, who were sewing face masks, we made around 600 face masks, reusable and rewashable and they were given out to the community. It seems to have worked because we didn’t get a single case in the village all summer – not until this new strain came along.
The harbour itself has done absolutely great. We’ve built the hub. We’ve got the community workshop, we have a big display and heritage centre, we have a new storage centre and it’s doubled up as our resilience hub.
We started doing community resilience in March last year when Covid kicked off and we have been going out to 130 local residents who were identified as needing help. The local pubs and restaurants chipped in and we raised money for a couple of soup and roll runs. It wasn’t so much about the food as keeping contact with the villagers. We’d do fish and chips on a Friday night. There were volunteers from the community council, our community benefit society, a lifeboat crew – about 150 of us to take it in turns to take the food out and getting the prescriptions.
The controversial thing is around the village hall. We put in an asset transfer for the village hall on June 4, 2019, to stop it getting shut down by the council. We got turned down by the council and we’ve now gone to appeal and that’s with the Scottish Ministers.
It’s frustrating. I’ve used the Community Empowerment Act three times: first for the land behind the harbour, then for the harbour, and now with the village hall. The third time was a completely different experience. We received a lot of obstruction by the council.
Five or six years ago, Dumfries and Galloway said they wanted to get rid of the hall, and the community said they didn’t want to lose it. The council said if you don’t want to take it on, you will lose it. We said at the time, “We’re not saying no, but we’ve just taken on the harbour so we want to do our due diligence and when we're ready we’ll address the hall.” That wasn’t good enough, so they identified people within the community who had their own businesses. They formed a trust to take it on.
The communities directorate at Dumfries and Galloway council had been trying to cut down the budget for a number of years. When they tried to get rid of the village hall, I think when we said no, that got their backs up. Because they intended to get rid of all the halls by a deadline.
I’ve had to learn the act inside out. The council is hapless with it. They are purporting: “Come and take on this asset and we will assist you.” But all they’re doing is getting rid of liabilities.
I’ve now handed our documents to this reporter who’s building a case for the court report that will go to the Scottish Ministers for the appeal. The current status is that it will go to the Scottish Ministers with his suggestion as to which way it should go. And we’ll see how the Community Empowerment Act holds up.
We’re better off for coming out of Europe, no doubt, but as far as the Scottish thing I think we’re far better staying in the union. I’m a Scotsman, I’m proud to be a Scotsman and I will be that first, but I’m still British and it makes no sense to split up an island the size of Britain.
As far as the big picture with councils and that, it’s almost like they don’t care about constituents. Like anyone who's had their budget cut, I can empathise, but that doesn’t give them carte blanche to do what they like. The council was voted in by us, they work for us and at the end of the day they are there for us. I’m disappointed in the local council and as far as the system, I hope that this appeal process will take us to a place where the truth will out.
The Portpatrick Village Hall dispute has been referred to the Scottish Ministers, who will decide whether or not to award the Harbour Community Benefit Society ownership. The case reveals the high stakes involved in the sell-off of council assets in towns and villages that rely on these spaces for meetings, birthdays and funerals – the kind of gatherings that glue people and places together.
It’s not just an issue in Scotland. In England, more than 120 town halls, village halls and community centres were disposed of by local councils between 2014/15 and 2017/18, according to data from the Sold From Under You investigation that I conducted with the Bureau Local in 2019. Just a handful made their way into community ownership using community asset transfers, which are supported by the Localism Act (2011) in England.
In 2015, Dumfries and Galloway Council had 68 town halls and community centres on its books. As part of its policy of “fewer but better assets”, established in 2012, it embarked on reviewing all of these facilities, and by 2014 a total of 29 properties had been identified for closure, short term leases, or community asset transfer, with total savings of £283,000 for the council. Some of these have proved successful. In Whithorn, which benefits from being on an historic pilgrimage route that is being developed for walking and cycling, the All Roads Lead to Whithorn Trust has used a community asset transfer to take ownership of the local town hall, where it will build a boxing gym, kitchens and a bunkhouse at the rear of the site, part funded by £1.35m from the Scottish Government.
Often, the costs required to refurbish these neglected spaces are too high for communities to shoulder. In Kirkcolm, not far from Portpatrick, the community trust will lose its lease on the community hall in April after the costs to repair the building spiralled. “My sense was that the council was being enabling, but they didn’t know their asset,” says Steve Sloan, part of the Kirkcolm Community Trust. “The hall is a liability. The council ignored it for 30 years. They were surprised when they saw the amount of work that needed doing.”
I contacted Dumfries and Galloway Council for comment and will add it here when they respond. David Henderson from Scotland’s Community Ownership Support Service told me that the Community Asset Transfer legislation gives community groups a right to make use of an asset – land or building – for community benefit even if a council does not intend to get rid of it. “In that sense it's a positive right used by groups to further their interests,” he said. “This should be seen in the context of increasing pressure on the public sector to balance its books.”