Community shares helped a struggling village revive its harbour

The National, by Lesley Riddoch
21.10.18

PORTPATRICK is about as remote as you get these days in the Scottish Lowlands. Yet this picturesque, coastal community eight miles south-west of Stranraer has just made history. It’s the first village in Scotland to save itself and its harbour by issuing community shares.

The story starts in 2007, when the harbour’s private owners, Portpatrick Harbour Ltd, announced plans for a 57-berth marina. The council vetoed the proposal as “completely inappropriate for the conservation of the area”. So it was. Portpatrick was once the main ferry terminal for crossing to Donaghadee in Northern Ireland. Fishing boats also crowded into its harbour, carrying tons of herring, and a rail line connected Portpatrick to Glasgow, and beyond. Business was booming.

But the ferry moved to Stranraer, fishing boats found larger ports elsewhere and in 1950, the Portpatrick line of the railway closed down. The harbour started drifting from the hands of one absentee landlord to another, slipping into visible disrepair. Without even basic facilities, yachters had stopped using the harbour.

Portpatrick’s sense of itself was crumbling. Villagers knew they needed to install modern moorings and decent toilet, washing and showering facilities while keeping the harbour’s old-fashioned charm, or risk forever losing tourist revenue to competing ports and marinas along the Solway and Galloway coasts.

So locals formed a trust to get the harbour into community ownership. It would take 10 long years, near bankruptcy, an emergency change in charity law and an act of faith by 554 local investors before that dream became a reality.

The first steps were faltering. In

2012 the local trust agreed to buy the harbour from Sir David Kirch – a multi-millionaire based in Jersey. An earlier valuation reckoned the harbour was worth £50,000 – but the trust paid seven times that amount, using community benefit cash from a local wind farm and a loan of £125,000 from the owners themselves, to be repaid by 2015. It was an impossible condition. But the community had been trying to buy the harbour for eight long years, and fears that the harbour might yet be developed into a mini Solway Riviera lent urgency to the deal.

At the end of 2014, North Sea oil worker and local man Calum Currie took over as trust chair. It was clear the trust wouldn’t be able to repay the loan by the deadline. No bank would lend fresh funds, and the harbour’s income – just £18,000 pounds – wouldn’t cover the debt. A request for help to the David Kirch Charitable Trust prompted a terse reply: “I do not mind any business-like approach, but I am tired of the request for charity.”

A lawyer told Currie: “Your ship is sinking spectacularly.”

But when the going gets rough, the community gets going.

Calum Currie scoured the internet and finally read about community shares.

He recalls: “There were loads of community benefit societies in England, but in Scotland they didn’t qualify for charitable status. That was a problem because a charity would qualify for rates and tax relief and that was vital to make the whole project work. But OSCR, the charity regulators, pushed changes through for us and Community Shares Scotland (CSS) helped us get a bridging loan of £75,000 pounds from Social Investment Scotland.

“It was a rush job but it helped us over the line and Portpatrick became the first ever Scottish charitable community benefit society in August 2015.”

That left only the minor matter of selling the community shares.

Emails were sent to regular visitors. Shops and stores advertised the share sale to tourists. The launch date was set for the annual folk festival in September, when the harbour would likely be full. Robert Erskine became Portpatrick’s harbourmaster in early 2015 after two and a half decades as coxswain on the lifeboat. He went between the boats at the festival selling community shares at £25 a pop: “Each shareholder got one vote, no matter how many shares they bought. This stops large outside investors taking over control. But most people bought community shares for their grandchildren – not to make money. It made them feel part of the community.”

In just three weeks, Portpatrick had raised enough cash to save the harbour, with more than 500 shareholders from as far away as Canada and Bermuda. Currie was elected chair of the new Portpatrick Harbour Community Benefit Society. “Without community shares we would have been dead in the water,” he says.

Since then, the villagers have been busy. The first move was to kick-start the regeneration process. The increasingly canny Community Benefit Society won £50,000 grant funding to resurface the entire quayside, which let them hold more community events. They used the Community Empowerment Act twice to take over neighbouring council land for community use and public toilets, which were about to be closed by the council. They’re now open all-year round with two part-time staff members – closing in November for refurbishment to be ready for 2019’s yachting season.

The big plan is to turn old derelict buildings by the harbour into a community hub with washing and drying facilities for local fishermen and mariners, training space for the RNLI and coastguard, an emergency generator to help cope with power cuts on stormy winter days, washing machines and tumble dryers for yachters and local B&Bs.

The Society is in the final stages of securing a £135,000 grant to build the community hub, dipping into income from harbour fees and a healthy reserve to finish the job.

“We are now £100,000 in the black – three years ago we were £120,000 in the red,” says Calum. And that’s made a tangible difference to confidence in Portpatrick.

Steve Stringer owns Lochryan Leisure, running wildlife-watching tours and chartered fishing trips since 2009;

“Uncertainty about the future of the harbour before the buy-out meant I was thinking about relocating the business to Stranraer. After investing time and effort building my business in Portpatrick and, as one of the few local volunteer lifeguards with the RNLI, I was contemplating the move with a heavy heart.

“But now the future feels positive and full of hope. My business is thriving and I’m about to buy a third boat. It’s been a huge confidence boost for an area that’s suffered real depopulation and has too often been left off the tourist trail.”

It’s an incredible achievement – an inspiration to small coastal villages around Scotland struggling with depopulation and obstructive private landowners. According to Toby Sandison of Community Shares Scotland: “We’re happy to help any community seeking to emulate Portpatrick’s transformational share offer success.”