The Midsteeple Quarter Project
Guest Blog by Peter Roberts from The Stove’s Midsteeple Project
The community in Dumfries is taking back control of its High Street. The Midsteeple Quarter is an innovative, community-led initiative to breathe new life into Dumfries town centre by developing a section of the High Street as a live/work quarter. Central to the plan is the development of new housing and the re-creation of a vibrant, diverse town centre community, including accommodation and mixed-use communal spaces geared to the needs of older people.
All over the UK traditional town centres are in decline because of systemic changes in retailing: out-of-town shopping developments, the rise of Internet shopping, and the hostile trading environment for small, independent retailers. First, the big multiple chains made all our High Streets look identikit versions of one another, and now many are abandoning the old centres, leaving behind vacant buildings and a general air of decline and depression.
But all is not lost. There is a lively debate across Scotland about the future of our High Streets, and Dumfries is one of the leading voices in that debate. The future town centre will be a multi-purpose community hub, refashioned for leisure, health, entertainment, education, arts, and business/office space. Retailing will be part of the picture, but it will no longer be the sole or dominant activity that it has been in the past. And most importantly, town centres will be places where people once again live.
The Midsteeple Quarter project is a response to this vision, and to the community’s expressed priority of enabling more people to live on and around the High Street. It is working to take back control of a group of underused and neglected High Street buildings (the Midsteeple Quarter) and refurbish them as a contemporary living, working, socialising, learning and enterprising hub. It will be a new beating heart for the town centre that could be the catalyst for making Dumfries a thriving and resilient place.
Midsteeple Quarter is the trading name of Dumfries High Street Ltd, a Community Benefit Society set up in April 2017 to enhance the quality of life of local people by bringing assets into community ownership and management. We’ve all heard of community buy-outs of remote estates in the Highlands and Islands – well, this is possibly the first example in Scotland of an urban community buying-out parts of its High Street.
This is not ‘pie-in-the-sky’ – the first ‘community asset transfer’ to Dumfries High Street Ltd is almost complete. The Baker’s Oven, next door to W.H. Smith, will be in community ownership before the end of 2018. Architects have drawn-up outline plans to convert the ground floor to spaces for creative enterprises, with seven apartments above and behind the enterprise space. Discussions and applications for funding the project are being progressed. It is planned that work will begin on site in early summer 2019.
Now, the Board of Dumfries High Street Ltd, made up of volunteers from the community with relevant skills in community engagement, planning and property development, business, project management, social housing and arts and creative production, is exploring options for two more disused Midsteeple Quarter buildings, following on the heels of The Baker’s Oven project.
The Board is working collaboratively with a range of partners to bring this vision to reality. The key strategic partners include Dumfries and Galloway Council, the Scottish Government and the Holywood Trust. And the team behind the Midsteeple Quarter already have a track record of pioneering transformation of the High Street. Whilst Dumfries High Street Ltd is now a separate and independent Community Benefit Society, it grew out of The Stove Network. It’s building, The Stove, across the street from the Midsteeple Quarter, has brought new life, sparkle and creative enterprise to the town centre, and aims to use the arts to engage and mobilise people as agents for change within their own lives and within the communities in which they live.
The regenerated Midsteeple Quarter buildings will do the same, with the critical difference that they will be in community ownership and looked after as assets for future community benefit. With The Stove on one side of the High Street and The Oven on the other, a bright future for the town centre is coming nicely to the simmer
Like the Stove Network, anyone can become a member of The Midsteeple Quarter. As a community benefit society, it is a legal entity that is the equivalent of an old fashioned building society. There are currently around 350 members. Membership is free and open to anyone who wants to be part of shaping the plan for a town built by and for local people – spreading the word, supporting local businesses, making your voice heard.
And soon members and the wider community will be able to support the project by investing in shares in Midsteeple Quarter. The Board is exploring proposals for a Community Shares Issue. There may be financial returns for investors in the mid to long term, but first and foremost the Issue will be an opportunity for local people to invest in the future of our town centre in a practical and meaningful way. A healthy, vibrant town centre would be a pretty good return for anyone who cares about the future of Dumfries.Members can also be part of the ‘community army’ making practical improvements in the town and putting pressure on building owners and the government to ‘Do right by Dumfries’.
If you want to know more about the Midsteeple Quarter project, have a look at the website: http://midsteeplequarter.org, and for details of membership, including the application form, go to the website page at: http://www.midsteeplequarter.org/membership-application-form-dumfries-high-street-limited/