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Midsteeple Quarter: Community ownership breathing new life into town centre

Cover photo:  Kirstin McEwan Photography / Midsteeple Quarter

Tired of inaction by absentee landlords and neglected High Street buildings falling further into disrepair, the community in Dumfries is taking back control to shape a stronger, more sustainable future.

Communities throughout the UK are closely watching the progress being made by Midsteeple Quarter as it puts community ownership at the heart of a long-term vision for town centre regeneration – creating a new neighbourhood where people live, work and visit.

Midsteeple Quarter is a community benefit society, which officially came into being in 2018. Set up and run by the people of Dumfries, its aim is to be a catalyst for change, putting the interests of townsfolk first.

Its core principle is that local people have the innovative solutions to both tackle the challenges and seize the opportunities that exist in the town. And it is one which has made a rapid impact.

Scott Mackay, Midsteeple Quarter’s executive director, says: “Midsteeple Quarter is about community ownership and trying to tackle the market failure that has hit our High Street, with buildings sitting empty for long periods of time and the community becoming frustrated about the lack of investment in the town centre.

“So the people of Dumfries decided to take things into their own hands. It embraces community empowerment. It’s about taking back control.”

As of summer 2023, townsfolk – through Midsteeple Quarter – have taken ownership of six High Street buildings.

One site is in the midst of a multi-million pound transformation into new homes and enterprise spaces. At another, work will start in 2024 on creating new flats there. A third has already become a hub for creative entrepreneurship as home of a social enterprise and award-winning photography studio, while the final three are in “meanwhile” use providing pop-up spaces, including helping to retain banking services in the town centre.

The practical work taking place is underpinned by a masterplan which sets out how – over the years ahead – the rejuvenation of Midsteeple Quarter will take shape, with the knock-on positive effects that will deliver for the wider town centre. The masterplan itself was awarded the masterplanning accolade at the 2022 Scottish Design Awards.

All of that is powered by the community, members of which have been the driving force behind securing the funds needed to take the buildings into community ownership through the likes of crowdfunders and other donations.

Some of that funding has also been invested in the first major phase of construction, which is on-course for completion in spring 2024. It will see the creation of seven flats sitting above two floors of enterprise spaces. It is also supported financially by the Scottish Government, South of Scotland Enterprise, Dumfries & Galloway Council and the Holywood Trust.

Photo credit: Kirstin McEwan Photography / Midsteeple Quarter

“By bringing people back into the town centre to live – which they would’ve done historically – we’re creating a community which is on the doorstep of the shops and other services on the High Street. It immediately creates a more resilient, sustainable area,” adds Scott.

“It’s also using spaces which, for many years, have been empty. Retailers have not been interested in the upper floors – in some cases, the staircases have even been removed.”

The community benefit society operates in the same way as an old-fashioned building society. Work of the entirely independent organisation is overseen by a board of volunteer directors, appointed by the membership, which is now in excess of 700 people.

Scott says: “The community is at the heart of all that we do – and asking about their aspirations for the High Street continues to be great fun.

“We can see our work is proving to be a catalyst for wider regeneration in Dumfries.”

The potential for driving success and encouraging entrepreneurship has already been highlighted in one of the community-owned buildings.

111 High Street is home to Flourish, operated by social enterprise The Guild Dumfries. Its role in encouraging creativity, business and supporting the High Street was recognised with the Enterprising Communities prize at the 2022 Scotland Loves Local Awards. The building is also home to food and product photographer Lolliography, which works to showcase producers and restaurants from across Dumfries and Galloway and beyond.

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