From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

The Road To Wester Hailes

At 9 storeys high, Block 7 at Westburn Gardens was the biggest block of flats within Wester Hailes and comprised 105 units in total.

© Kevin Walsh 1994

David Pirie provides a comprehensive review of post war housing and its legacy for areas such as Wester Hailes. 

David was commissioned by the City of Edinburgh District Council in 1981 to investigate the failure of ground floor construction in blocks of flats in Wester Hailes.  Thereafter he developed an increasing workload as an Analyst and Expert Witness, becoming the lead consultant in the Hurd Rolland Partnership Construction Technology Section.

In this article he describes the growing reliance on prefab housing, the acute social problems these “streets in the sky” generated and the long term consequences of speed driven large scale developments.  Whilst he points out that the road to Wester Hailes was paved with good intentions, he highlights key issues and the need to learn from past mistakes.

The Road To Wester Hailes

David Pirie

© David Pirie 2010

It is very difficult from a viewpoint in the early part of the 21st century to remember or indeed imagine what housing conditions were like for many, in our towns and cities in the 1950’s.  It is necessary to go back in time to the period shortly after the Second World War to understand how large housing developments, such as Wester Hailes came to be built.

 Generally town and city centres had been badly neglected.  There had been little financial investment, particularly in the tenement blocks, which were widespread in these areas.  Of course to make matters considerably worse in many cases there was large scale bomb damage.  Many properties had been destroyed, or were in a shockingly run down condition.

The country was exhausted physically and financially after six years of war.  There were shortages of materials and it was appreciated that there was a considerable problem that had to be addressed, but resources were strictly limited.  Edinburgh was no exception in having a decayed core, with many people forced to live in what we would now consider to be appalling conditions.

The Victorian Legacy

Britain’s cities had begun to expand on a large scale during the nineteenth century, largely due to workers and labourers from the surrounding country areas flocking to the cities seeking work during the period of industrialisation and expanding employment opportunities.  New house building was largely restricted to profit-seeking private builders. Mostly in the form of terraced houses, these new communities were largely unplanned. The large majority of the population rented privately, from a modest room in a house to a grand residence in the country.

Problems of poor housing conditions in inner city areas, grew steadily as city populations increased. With the development of high density unorganised neighbourhoods, overcrowding became commonplace. In the poorer areas of cities, families could be found huddled in dark and unsanitary blocks of squalid housing often without facilities and natural light. Concerns began to grow across the country about public health.  There was pressure on the Government to begin to take some action.  It was argued that new private housing was too expensive for most working class families and of these houses, most were built in the suburbs, which were too expensive and distant from their sites of employment

Up until 1919, although councils did have the power to build houses, most did very little. In almost all areas, efforts to clear slum areas exceeded all house construction, effectively reducing the number of low cost houses available. Most pre-1919 corporation housing was built cheaply taking the form of high density tenement blocks of flats with small rooms and limited facilities including shared kitchen and toilets and no running hot water.   It was not until after the First World War that housing became a real priority

The vast urban population growth experienced from the early nineteenth century created an urgent need for more housing. Even at the beginning of the century the pace of population growth was so fast that scores of families were crowding into houses built to accommodate one or two.  Overcrowding remained a long-term problem, due to the poor distribution of housing between income groups. As the wealthy members of society moved out to the suburbs, the poorest of the working class masses remained packed into high-density areas, with numbers rising every year due to the sheer numbers pouring into the city.

In the years before the First World War, private builders had supplied virtually all the new housing in towns and cities. The war, however, changed everything. Building activity came to a virtual standstill, whilst the country fought. By the time of the General Election in 1918 it was becoming clear that the country faced an acute shortage of housing. Building costs were inflated and this, combined with a scarcity of materials and labour, made it impossible for the private developers to provide houses at affordable rents. The close of the war also brought a new social attitude that focused the Government’s attention on constructing housing, encapsulated by Lloyd George’s famous promise that the soldiers returning from the war would be provided with “homes fit for heroes”.

The Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919 (The Addison Act) was seen as a watershed in the provision of corporation (council) housing. Councils were thrust to the forefront as the providers and they began to plan their post-war housing programmes. Housing Committees were set up, working largely to recommendations from central government’s advisory committee and encouraged to build through the provision of generous subsidies. The subsidy arrangements shared the costs of this new housing between the tenants, local rate payers and the Treasury.

Planners promoted the construction of new suburban ‘garden’ estates, situated on the outskirts of cities. Mainly consisting of three bedroom houses for families, the design of the estates aimed to create self-contained communities of low density – often with no more than 12 houses per acre. Facilities, including churches, schools and shops, were provided; public houses were initially excluded from the plans. Although some slum clearance took place during the 1920s much of the emphasis of this period was to provide new general needs housing on greenfield sites.

The high building standards initially embraced in 1919 were gradually reduced during the 1920s and 1930s. As cost considerations became paramount, space and amenities were reduced. The principle objective became to erect houses that could be let at levels of rents which lower wage earners could afford. This brought pressures to reduce the size and standard of houses and set a trend for new council estates to be developed at a higher density.

By 1933 all authorities were required to concentrate efforts on slum clearance; each had to submit a programme of building and demolition aimed at eliminating slums from their districts. Unlike the garden estates built directly after the First World War, much of the slum clearance was replaced with flats, mostly three to five storeys high. They were often modelled on schemes in continental Europe.

Meeting The Challenge – 1945 And After

The outbreak of the Second World War effectively put a stop to house building for a second time. As the war drew to a close, Britain faced its worst housing shortage of the twentieth century. Thousands of houses across the country had been lost by heavy bombing and many more were badly damaged.

Part of the initial response was a programme of short term repairs to existing properties and the rapid construction of ‘prefabs’ – factory built single storey temporary bungalows.   These were usually constructed in aluminium in aircraft factories, which had spare capacity now that the war had finished.  More rare examples were constructed from pre-cast concrete panels.  These temporary houses were highly controversial, but the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was strongly in favour and initiated the Temporary Prefabricated Housing programme.

The first prefabs were completed in June 1945, only weeks after the war had ended.  It took a minimum of 40 man-hours to assemble the two bedroom houses complete with plumbing and heating. Sometimes prisoners of war who were still being held in the country were used to help in the construction of the concrete slabs on which the sections of bungalow were erected. The prefabs could be completed very quickly once the sections were delivered to the site. Unlike traditional houses, they had fully fitted kitchens and bathrooms

The election of August 1945 saw a Labour government voted in and housing policy was central to its proposed welfare reforms. Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Health, was responsible for the housing programme, which focused heavily on local authority involvement rather than reliance of the private sector. Added pressure on the new Government came in the form of soldiers returning from war and rising working class expectations, which had been fostered by its manifesto promises.

Despite the construction of over 150,000 prefabs, Britain still faced an acute housing shortage and waiting lists soared in urban areas. Large swathes of slum housing remained. Many of these buildings had been due for demolition under slum clearance plans drawn up before the war, but subsequently became neglected.

To meet this challenge, local authorities all across the UK initiated ambitious programmes of house building Helped by Government subsidies, complete neighbourhoods were demolished and redeveloped according to modern town planning concepts of mixed estates with low and high-rise building. Many of the new dwellings were in the form of multi-storey tower blocks, which seemed the ideal solution to the housing problem at the time.

In addition, a key feature of this post-war expansion of council housing was the development of new estates on or close to the edge of the cities. With the supply of inner city building sites running out, and faced with growing waiting lists of people needing housing, councils turned to the peripheries. Sometimes city boundaries were expanded to embrace these new estates. Expansion into greenfield areas was partly about rehousing people from the congested inner city areas where redevelopment was taking place, and partly about responding to the sheer growth in demand for housing during the ‘baby boom’ period up until the 1970’s.

Prefabricated system building

As a result of these pressures Government policy in the years following the Second World War became focussed on the perceived need to produce significant numbers of new houses as quickly as possible.  Speed of construction and not the quality of the finished product became the principal object.  Local Authorities were set targets showing how many houses they had to build within a set period of time.  Up until that time in Britain, the vast majority of new houses were constructed in the time honoured fashion, involving squads of bricklayers and joiners.  Using traditional bricks and mortar was a slow but sure way of building.  The speed of construction depended on the available manpower on sites and was very weather dependent.  It was not unusual for sites to have to close down for a period during severe winter weather.  There was in addition, a severe shortage of materials and skilled labour at the time.   Pressure therefore developed to find a different way of procuring new houses in as short a time as possible.

Experiments had taken place after the First World War to find an alternative to traditional building.  These first “systems” were designed either to use the production facilities and skilled labour no longer needed for the war effort, or aimed to simplify building methods by using concrete units that could be built with unskilled labour.

Concrete was considered to be an exciting new material in the 1920s, but understanding of the chemistry of cement and concrete, the role of carbonation and chlorides, and the importance of detailing, particularly of joints was very limited.  This would have serious consequences later.

The early precast systems generally attempted to prefabricate the main structural elements of a building, so that they could be assembled quickly and simply. The concept of prefabrication gradually became accepted, particularly for cheap bungalows as holiday and retirement homes.  At this time, new ideas about house design and construction were coming into Britain from overseas, as part of the Modern Movement, with standardisation and prefabrication seen as new and logical approaches.

In the decade following 1945, some 450,000 non-traditional houses were built, but the need for new houses continued. Through the 1950s and 60s industrialised building systems, many from Europe, were introduced.  Two of the most popular systems that came into widespread use were those manufactured by Bison and Skarne.  Both of these systems were used to construct parts of the Wester Hailes estate.

The principle of prefabricated construction was simple enough.  Large concrete panels to form floor and wall units were produced off-site in a factory and erected on-site to form robust structures, ideal for repetitive cellular projects. Panels could include services, windows, doors and finishes. Building envelope panels with factory fitted insulation and decorative cladding could also be used as load-bearing elements. This, at least in theory, offered factory quality and accuracy, together with speed of erection on-site.  Speed and productivity were seen as the key benefits of the systems, which coincided with the then enthusiasm for high-rise development.  

One should have expected a much higher standard of construction using prefabricated systems in a significantly faster time.  This however ignored the fact that a workforce unskilled in handling such large building components would have to manhandle the panels into precisely the right position, under typically unsuitable British (and particularly Scottish!) on-site conditions.  After a period of time, problems gradually became apparent with these system built blocks.

The partial collapse of Ronan Point in 1968, changes in Building Regulations, and the lack of development of new systems meant that the decades of invention and innovation in non-traditional house design and construction eventually came to an end. In the early 1980s, defects in design and construction were discovered in a number of pre-1960 precast concrete house types.  In 1986, the government commissioned a comprehensive research programme from the Building Research Establishment, to provide aids to identifying the main types, with information and advice on construction, inspection and assessment, maintenance and repair. This led to the Housing Defects legislation, and 34 systems were ‘designated defective’.

Bison Wallframe System

The developments at Wester Hailes were not immune to these problems.  MacData, part of the Paisley College of Technology were appointed by the City of Edinburgh District Council in c1980 to investigate the problems that were becoming apparent with the housing at Wester Hailes, that had been constructed using the Bison Wallframe system.   Macdata produced their well known report in 1982.  This identified many examples of poor workmanship in constructing the blocks.  On occasion, presumably because adjoining panels would not fit together accurately, the workforce had simply cut off the fixings that could not be accurately located.  This meant the large panels were retained into position simply by the self weight of the panels and not by any physical fixings.  All in all an alarming thought.  These blocks were subsequently demolished. 

The Bison Wallframe system eventually became so notorious that it was used as the subject of a Granada Television “World in Action” programme in 1977 and was subsequently debated in Parliament. The World in Action documentary showed that the Bison wall-frame system involved a type of special mortar, which was designed neither to last as long as the concrete panels, nor to cope with the damp climate of Britain. The system was also inadequately water-proofed, with badly fitting rubber seals and panels which were chipped, cracked or of the wrong size.  Chemicals had been used, which actually corroded the steel reinforcing to the panels, and the whole system was poorly fitted.  General levels of supervision and work standards were inadequate. Such problems led to early decay, dampness, vandalism, noise and condensation, which were initially blamed on poor tenants.

In addition to the actual problems that occurred during construction, the level of specification of the buildings themselves caused further difficulties.  In order to save money, standards of insulation had been reduced to the point where condensation became endemic.  This was a time when women were going out to work in a widespread fashion for the first time, which meant that many houses were left empty and unheated during the day and therefore became very cold during the winter.   Tenants would return from work in the late afternoon and naturally the heating was immediately put on to try to warm the houses up.  The warm air generated by the heating systems came into contact with the very cold concrete panels, causing condensation to run down the wall surfaces.  In a short space of time, the interiors of the houses became unpleasant to live in.  Black mould was a common sight on the walls, particularly where warm air could become trapped, behind furniture etc.  Soft furnishings readily became damaged.  These were all typical of the problems identified in the Macdata report.

Skarne System

The second system, widely used at Wester Hailes, was known as the Skarne Sytem.  By the 1940s a family business, under the name of Ohlsson & Skarne, had become a substantial construction company in the Stockholm area of Sweden.  During the 1950s and 60s when the industrialization of building was popularized in Europe, the company enjoyed a major national and international expansion.  Skarne was a pioneer in this new form of building and at the forefront of developing new construction systems.  In its original form the Skarne system offered prefabricated houses of fairly high quality.  The introduction of this system into Britain involved an agreement with a British national contractor to actually construct the system.  Importantly, once again in an effort to reduce costs and to comply with the Scottish Development Department financial limits, the standard of insulation within the concrete panel system was either removed altogether, or was substantially reduced.

The majority of the housing built in the area of Wester Hailes known as The Calders was of the Skarne type.  In 1980, I was appointed by the City of Edinburgh District Council to investigate the problems of dampness and “water penetration” within many of the low rise Calders houses.  The investigation proceeded over several months.  It was found that many of the constructional problems identified with the Bison Wallframe system were present in the blocks, although not to the same extent.  It was concluded that the principal problems were related to the lack of adequate insulation and severe condensation resulting from this.  In many instances, what the tenants had complained of as water penetration, was in fact serious condensation running down the internal ducts of the buildings and out into the timber over-floors of the individual houses, causing not only damage to floor coverings and decoration, but leading to rot in the over-floors themselves.  This proved to be yet another example of the decision to reduce standards of construction having unforeseen consequences.

Problems Not Solutions

The use of prefabricated systems was very much a “child of its time”.  It seemed to offer a solution to the Government’s desire to construct as many houses, as quickly as possible.  As initially constructed, the new houses were well received as they seemed to offer a much higher standard of accommodation than people had been used to, particularly in the slums of the city centres.  After a short time however, problems became apparent.  These related both to the standard of construction and the basic design philosophy.  For example, open deck access flats simply do not work in the Scottish climate.  The inevitable process of disillusionment and decline followed.  Eventually, many prefabricated blocks were demolished to make way for new houses, usually built in a traditional form.  The cost to the country was very considerable and was a waste of national resources at a time when this could least be afforded.


There is no doubt that serious housing problems had to be addressed in the 1950s and 1960s.  The conditions that people were forced to live in within the many slums of the City were simply unacceptable.  Clearly problems had been developing for many years and had not been addressed.  This coincided with the accumulative effects of two World Wars.  Government policy was perceived to be to build as many new houses as possible within a short period of time.

Land to construct large scale housing developments was simply not available in the centre of the City.  There was therefore probably little alternative, but to develop on the outskirts.  Clearly, with land at a premium, the decision to build to a high density was understandable.  The results of this decision however were in part responsible for some of the problems which later became apparent.  Although people came to live in the new developments from tenement housing that was itself of a comparatively high density it was not of the scale of the new housing areas.  Large areas of land were covered in high density housing, from which there was little prospect of escape.  There were few opportunities to walk away from the new housing areas to experience something different.  They were physically remote from the rest of the City.  Within the new developments there were few amenities.  After an initial period when the new tenants could simply enjoy their new accommodation, it is understandable that many felt trapped in an unfriendly environment.  Levels of crime, especially vandalism, were high.  Particularly in the multi-storey blocks it was difficult to move freely about the development.  The concept of “streets in the sky” simply did not work in the Scottish climate.  The new developments quickly became to be regarded as being undesirable places to live.

It is very important to appreciate that the vast majority of our towns and cities have developed over hundreds of years.  It is the process of gradual development, with buildings of different ages, that gives the towns and cities their character and makes them pleasant places to live.  With developments such as Wester Hailes the numbers of houses involved in fact meant that a new “town” was built all at once.  In my opinion, the principal reasons for the difficulties that arose at Wester Hailes and other similar developments were the sheer numbers of houses that were built within a short period of time.  As a result, there was no time to assess the results of early phases of development before further phases were under construction.  There was therefore simply no time to correct earlier mistakes.  Indeed, the very problems that later became so serious, were multiplied as further houses were built hard on the heels of those already constructed.  From a design and construction point of view it was easier to provide large scale developments, rather than many smaller developments that would probably have been much more socially acceptable.

In an attempt to further speed up the construction process, many Local Authorities turned to large national contractors who were prepared to offer a “design/build” service.  This however meant that the contractors came to be in charge of the procurement process.  As a result, while the process may indeed have been to some extent accelerated, this was achieved at the cost of a loss of control.  Contractors could utilise their own systems, or methods of construction.  However the numbers of houses to be built became largely dictated by the contractor and not by the Local Authority.  It was a question of how many units could be constructed on a particular piece of land.  The overall standards of design slipped as the contractors’ profit margins became the principal factor in any development.  Cost control became problematic as the contractor was the driving force and independent control was difficult to achieve.  Most seriously however, was the lack of proper independent monitoring of standards, while the houses were under construction.  Most authorities employed Clerks of Works, but this was not the same as having an independent Architect administrating a Building Contract.  If technical problems arose during construction there was, perhaps inevitably, a temptation to resolve these in a way that did not interfere with the contractors’ programme of works, rather than in the most satisfactory way for the future wellbeing of the houses.  The way in which the Bison Wallframe flats were constructed is a prime example of this.

In recent years, a number of the multi-storey blocks have been demolished and the sites of these made available for redevelopment.  These sites together with other areas of open space have now been developed mainly to a lower scale and density.  These newer developments, while not without their own problems often due to the sheer numbers of dwellings involved, are of a very different character to the original buildings.  Generally they provide more acceptable areas to live in.  In many instances however, the problems of a lack of privacy and inadequate security remain to be resolved.

Wester Hailes has therefore now reached the stage where the original concept has been departed from as the lessons from the past are taken account of and newer areas are developed.  It seems likely that this process will continue in years to come and that provided the mistakes of the past are avoided there seems to be no reason why the area should not improve and with time become a more desirable place to live in.  Design/build contracts are still being used and clearly these have their place, although the potential problems of these such as loss of control must be properly recognised.


It is tempting to consider the Wester Hailes developments to have been misconceived and to some extent this must be true.  However, to put this in a proper context, one must try to envisage the plight of the many working class people forced to endure appalling conditions in the city centre slums during the 1950s and 60s. The road to Wester Hailes was paved with good intentions – the best, in fact.

It was only the sense of community that pervaded in the city centre slums which ameliorated the physical hardships and there is no doubt that the initial impressions of many tenants moving to Wester Hailes was an appreciation of the good standards of accommodation and the space and light that had been missing from their lives.  It was only with the passage of time that the problems that I have discussed became apparent.  I consider that it was a combination of density, scale and sheer numbers of houses, together with poor standards of construction that eventually led people to despair. 

I believe that the lessons of the 1960s/1970s housing developments are there for all to benefit from.  Although the problems facing Government and Local Authorities at the time were severe, we must not again be pushed into mass housing programmes of poor quality construction, built at such speed that there is no time to assess the success or failures of individual developments.  We must acknowledge the realities of the Scottish climate and the effects this can have on poor quality buildings.  This is not the south of France.  We must be prepared to spend a reasonable amount on new housing developments to ensure that they are constructed to a good standard and that they will continue to perform well for many years.  With recent changes in the Building Regulations however it seems highly unlikely that we could ever go back to the days when we built inadequately insulated and heated houses, which resulted in very poor living conditions.

Most of all we must learn from past mistakes.  In solving the city centre slum problems we actually simply created others.  Good quality housing is a very important asset in any country.  The environment in which people subsist creates conditions that dictate how lives are lived and how people perform socially.  Big is not usually beautiful.  We must build to a scale and density that people are comfortable with.  Individuals’ privacy must be respected in housing design.  This does not mean that we cannot have good and exciting design, but we must avoid following fashion and constructing “icons” to satisfy the desires of designers and authorities. 

© David Pirie 2010: Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from David Pirie is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to David Pirie and this blog, From There To Here with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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