Congratulations to the Southside Association : 40 years old and still going strong

Last night I had the pleasure of joining members of the Southside Association and my colleague Sheila Gilmore MP to celebrate the Southside Association.

At a well attended meeting it was the chance for people to remember the campaigns and work of members over that period. There were speeches from current chair, Colin Christison whose history of the Southside is superb and Keith Smith, the South Side Centre’s Manager.

At the 21st anniversary celebrations in 1993 Keith reported that the Southside Association was formed in order to represent the interests of the people who lived or worked in the area, and its two practical aims were to retain the population in improved housing, and to bring about the rehabilitation of streets and buildings of architectural and historical interest.

At the time the area was under immense pressure. There were 1,000 vacant houses in the area and there were plans for an urban motorway which would have bulldozed its way through the heart of the community. There were also the expansionary ambitions of the University to buy up properties around the area.

In other British cities the last 40 years has been the story of tenemental clearance with local people being pushed out of their communities and the character of the area replaced by concrete buildings which removed the local identity. I believe the Southside Association was instrumental in fighting for a better alternative. It worked in partnership with local politicians both pushing them for action and receiving support in turn.

The work of former Councillor Bob Cairns needs mention because, as chair of the Planning Committee, he was instrumental in protecting and regenerating the Southside and indeed the old town as Edinburgh’s historic heart. Former Housing Chairs Robin Cook and Sheila Gilmore followed their passion for local communities by becoming MPs. And although Alistair Darling’s entry into the history books will no doubt be due to his work as Chancellor his decisions as chair of Transport in Lothian Region opposing damaging roads plans were critical to the Southside’s future.

There are some lovely milestones recorded in the Minutes of the Association:

At the AGM in 1975 there were 170 members and the first South Side Local Plan went before the Council with a recommendation that South Siders were given the opportunity to stay in rehabilitated homes.

In 1975 the first Meadow Festival was held.

In 1977 the possible closure of Infirmary Street Baths was first mooted. When I was elected in 1999, Keith Geddes, regional councillor for the area, warned me that one of my jobs would be to do what I could to campaign against the closure of the baths. Over time new housing was built and Edinvar Housing Association created to refurbish the tenements in the area and raise the standard of housing available.

In 1984, on a motion from then local councillor George Foulkes, the old Southside church was converted into the Southside Community Centre – home to local community education activities, local sport and keep fit classes, history groups, kids activities and a fantastic community café which is a lifeline particularly for older members of the community.

For my part I want to record thanks to those members of the community who have kept not just the spirit but the reality of a community alive. The late Maggie Wilson OBE was a tireless campaigner for the area.

In my time as MSP I’ve been proud to support local campaigns to reopen the Nelson Hall and to support local groups such as the CYP to provide facilities particularly for young people. The Crags campaign to create sports facilities particularly for young people was spearheaded by Mary Whitfield and Liz Walker from the Dumbiedykes. It became a much loved local facility then we had the campaign against its closure, then to reopen it, culminating in last month’s celebrations of the partnership between Basketball Scotland and Castle Rock Edinvar which has ensured it is open for business again.

Last night we celebrated the contribution of Linda Femister who was elected 35 years ago to serve on the committee and who, it was estimated, had to date spent around 1,000 hours attending committee meetings. The contribution of George Pitcher is also worthy of thanks, not only has he been an active member of the Association, but is also the editor of the Southsider, a challenging task given the financially straitened times we live in. Last night I also wanted to record our thanks for the work of Keith Smith Manager of the Southside Community Centre. It’s been his job, his personal mission, to motivate and support the staff not just of the Southside Community Centre but also the Nelson Hall – in times of rising and more recently falling budgets for community education.

Those contributions are worth celebrating because the regeneration of the physical fabric of the Southside and the reuse of its buildings have enabled people to live in the area and it remains a distinct part of Edinburgh’s history. For me, it’s not just local history, its living history.