A Pitlochry couple’s dream to set up a space in the town for a climate café and men’s shed hangs in the balance due to rival commercial bids.
Carol Aitken runs a climate café from Pitlochry Library and her husband Peter operates a men’s shed at the Handam Refill Station in Burnside Road.
For the past 18 months the pair have been seeking a community asset transfer to give these services a dedicated home in the former Burnside toilets, which is owned by Perth and Kinross Council.
But the lengthy process of setting up a community interest company (CIC), as well as issues with the front-door shutters, held up their plans.
And now two commercial expressions of interest have been lodged, meaning the derelict building will be put on the open market.
“We are not as confident as we were to get the site,” Carol admitted.
However, in this article Carol and Peter make a case for the community benefits of their enterprises, and explain why the proposed new space would be so valuable for them.
Pitlochry homecoming in 2016
When the couple moved to Pitlochry in May 2016 it was something of a homecoming for Carol.
She spent her early years in Fife but enjoyed regular caravan holidays in the area.
Her parents, George Simpkins and Christina Simpkins, later rented a farmhouse on the Glenquaich estate near Amulree.
George, 91, was a gardener on the estate and moved back to Fife after retiring 18 years ago.
“We missed the place so much we moved back again,” Carol said.
Movement making inroads
Carol has a background in painting and decorating and an interest in climate change, having studied interior environmental design at Duncan of Jordanstone College.
She was inspired to set up a climate café by Jess Pepper, who founded the movement and brought it to Perth and Kinross via Dunkeld and Birnam in June 2015.
In October 2018 Carol set up a Pitlochry climate café in the Highland Perthshire Communities Partnership (HPCP) building in Atholl Road.
It later had a year-long spell at Moulin Hall before moving to its current location of Pitlochry Library.
Informal meetings open to all
A climate café is a meeting space to share ideas, concerns and current information on climate issues.
Meetings are informal and usually take place monthly. They are open to people of all ages, regardless of their understanding of climate change.
“All climate cafes cover the same issues but the priorities are different,” Carol explained.
“For example, when we first started in Pitlochry it was all about reducing waste, particularly plastic waste, whereas Dunkeld organised a saving water project.
“Each of them were looking at different aspects of the issues.
“In Blairgowrie there is a lot about community woodlands while in Aberfeldy they were more focused on films.
“Because coordinator Fiona MacEwan was at Birks Cinema she was able to source films on climate issues and she would do a new film per month and have a conversation afterwards.”
Insulation advice in Co-op visit
The Pitlochry climate café has 85 people on its email list and each meeting is usually attended by dozens.
Since Carol began coordinating the group there have been sessions on recycling and food waste.
There have also been visits from external groups and individuals, including a members of Perth and Kinross Council’s recycling team.
The group has done outreach too. Last Saturday there was a presence at the Pitlochcy Co-op to discuss energy efficiency with shoppers. Topics included insulation and draft proofing.
“We have been involved in tree planting and a new Pitlochry eco business page for accommodation providers to help them become more sustainable,” Carol said.
The group also works with the Handam Refill Station, which offers offer affordable refills of dry foods and household liquids.
“For us to continue to do these things and bring news ideas we need premises and funding,” Carol said.
Men’s shed offers gardening and boosts mental health
Broughty Ferry-born Peter Aitken helped establish a men’s shed in Pitlochry in August 2021.
The movement began 10 years ago as community spaces for men to connect, converse and create.
Activities are often similar to those of garden sheds, but for groups of men to enjoy together.
Pitlochry is one of more than half-a-dozen men’s sheds in Perth and Kinross.
Peter, who chairs the group, said: “We now meet every Thursday and are embarking on more regular projects.”
These include working with Perth and Kinross Council on creating getting people to garden and food waste bins.
Members have have also refurbished garden benches.
“It’s all about guys’ mental health,” Peter said. “We have 38 members and the numbers are increasing.”
The group’s current home is a socialising space, so moving into the Burnside toilets project would provide a workshop for the men to undertake projects.
“The intention would be to adapt it so we do work there on a regular basis,” Peter said. “We could have tools and facilities there.”
Information hub is the ambition
If the couple are able to successfully take over the toilets, which have been derelict for years, it would be more than just a venue for the climate café and men’s shed.
Carol’s vision is for the building to be an information hub on climate issues.
It could provide advice on energy efficiency, waste, transport and travel. She is also looking at it being part of a community orchard.
“It’s just amazing,” she said. “I think back to where I was before I came here.
“It was really difficult to find people who were interested in the climate but now more want to do something and find out more information.”
Anxious wait for council’s decision
In September 2021 Carol submitted an expression of interest to the council for a community asset transfer.
The following month she requested a visit that was finally granted in April 2022. The delay was caused due to faulty front-door shutters.
Early in the summer she made enquiries about a community asset transfer. The next step was a district valuation but just before Christmas she was notified of two potential commercial expressions of interest.
“This means we are on the same level as other expressions of interest because we haven’t had chance to get a community asset transfer in yet,” Carol said.
We are a community group and can get funding for it so I don’t know whether that will help us enough.”
She is hopeful that this will happen soon and that the council will look on her bid favourably.
“We are a community group and can get funding for it so I don’t know whether that will help us enough,” she added.
A Perth and Kinross Council spokesperson said: “Burnside toilets were declared surplus to council requirements a number of years ago and no decision has yet been taken on the site’s future.
“The site will be marketed for sale this year but community groups will still be able to submit bids for community asset transfers.
“These, along with any commercial proposals for the site, will be considered on their own merits.”