From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

The Bad, The Good and The Ugly

We begin a new series of posts this week by Adam Dudley, an experienced architect who specialises in community architecture.  Adam provides a detailed analysis of the aspirations and realities behind the original construction of Wester Hailes.  Based on his personal memories and experiences, Adam reflects both on the building process and some of the wider issues and lessons to be drawn from what happened.        


 THE BAD      

 Sometime around the mid 1960’s, in their initial report to the Planning Department, entitled ‘Wester Hailes – A Plan for a City Suburb’, the master planners and architects for the project, Sir Frank Mears & Partners, estimated that a total of 4,000 houses, consisting generally of 2 and 4 apartments, could be built on the site.  Whilst some ‘higher’ housing blocks were envisaged, the architects had recommended that the housing should generally not exceed 8 or 9 storeys ‘for architectural and social reasons’.  The architect’s plan, their report concluded, ‘embodies modern techniques which can ensure that the future residents may walk and drive in Wester Hailes with safety, convenience, enjoyment, and without conflict. It is hoped that in its final working out and materialisation, it will achieve in 20th century terms some of the civic qualities of former times.’  A schematic plan of the proposals for the Wester Hailes suburb, alongside plans of Edinburgh’s old and new towns were appended to the report to underpin this ‘vision’, complete with artists’ impressions of the proposals.       


The Architect’s Vision     

By 1975 the suburb of Wester Hailes was complete, although the promenades, courtyards, and lakeside views which had been depicted in the initial design report never did quite materialise.  In reality some 4550 house were built on the site, rather than the 4000 houses originally estimated.  Building contracts for the works had been secured by both competitive tendering and by negotiation, incorporating industrialised building systems.  Of the ten separate housing contracts, five were carried out by J Smart & Co. contractors, one by Hart Builders, and four were design and build contracts.  According to the Council, all of the houses were ‘built to the relevant space standards, they accord with the Building Regulations, and have an economic life of 60 years.’  [F1]
The year is 1980.  I am 23 years old and I am back living with my mother and brothers in Clovenstone whilst in my final year at Heriot Watt University, studying architecture.  For the main project of the year I have chosen to look at the failings of public housing, and to focus on Wester Hailes in particular.     

 The shortcomings of the existing built environment of Wester Hailes had already been well documented in previous studies, such as ‘Wester Hailes speaks for itself’ prepared by residents in 1977, and ‘Wester Hailes – a perspective of community needs’, prepared by the local authority’s Community Research Section.  Given the body of evidence, it seemed therefore appropriate that I should consult the master planners and architects of Wester Hailes directly to see if they could provide some special insight into why their collective vision might have failed.     

An interview with Mr Jimerson of Sir Frank Mears & Partners was duly arranged, during which I recorded the architect’s account of the various difficulties which impacted on the final design.  From my notes taken at the time, the following explanations were given:      

  • The scheme suffered generally as a result of poor communication between the individual committees (Housing, Highways, Recreation, Education, Finance, etc).  Moreover, the joint committee that existed had no executive powers.  Political differences within and between the individual committees reduced the cohesion of the joint committee.  It was suggested that a ‘New Town Committee’, or a temporary local authority, with an overall budget, might have helped overcome some of these problems.  
  • As a condition for developing this green belt site, very high densities had been stipulated by the Secretary of State (at 100 persons per net residential acre).  The required parking provision was similarly high, with one space per household, plus visitor parking.  The architects had suggested that some of the car parking space could be temporarily grassed over until such time that the demand increased (as Wester Hailes improved economically) so that the grassed areas could be converted for parking.  However the Housing Committee was ill-disposed to agree to this on the grounds that the car parking subsidy had to be applied for from the outset, and not at a later date as demand arose.  It was estimated that the cost for converting the proposed grassed areas for parking would be in the order of £3 million, and on the basis of this the parking provision proceeded as stipulated. [F2]
  • The topography and orientation of the site created specific design problems. The gradient of the site, which was as steep as 1 in 12 in places, meant that roads with a maximum permissible gradient of 1 in 30, for buses, took up almost 3 times of the nominal area generally required.  The site was north facing, limiting the available sunlight, and curtailing vegetation growth.  There were also specific problems of high wind. 
  • Economic considerations also impacted on the available sites for housing, with the better sites creamed off for the schools, where the flat sites were necessary for the Clasp system of construction which had been selected, and also for playing fields.  Similarly, the developers for the shopping centre, Rank City Wall, had insisted on a prime site as a condition for development.  Prior to the shopping centre development (which did not open until Oct. 1974) the architects had proposed temporary shopping facilities with subsidies, to compensate for the irregular trading until permanent services had been established.  This had been rejected on the grounds that the local authority could not be seen to be favouring certain traders, and that the ‘temporary’ tenants of these shops would be at an unfair advantage in the future.  A proposal for two main shopping centres instead of one was also put forward, but this was also rejected on the grounds that this might create unfair competition! 
  • In the final analysis, the awkwardness of the site, the economic restrictions, and the political/commercial manoeuvring, meant that the housing was ultimately given the worst sites.

The change in culture which confronted the new inhabitants of Wester Hailes was extreme.  Many were from the old Tollcross area, which had developed its own means of subsistence, with an abundance of pawn/second-hand clothes shops, low-priced commercial outlets, etc. It was now left to the new community to recreate this culture in Wester Hailes. [F3]
 A comparison was made with Musselburgh, which had a similar population, but which had had 200 years to develop!       

At the end of the interview my notes were given the title ‘Wester Hailes – The Architects’ Impotence’.  But this was the profession that I was following for myself, and I simply didn’t buy it. Whilst there had clearly been challenges with the design brief, the site, and with the procurement process, I didn’t accept that there was certain inevitability with the outcome of the development, as had been implied.  My own view was that the whole design process could have been approached differently and that this could have resulted in better homes and neighbourhoods.   But the failings and shortcomings the of Wester Hailes development were not simply the stuff for intellectual analysis or posturing.  These were for real, and were directly affecting the everyday lives of people in Wester Hailes.  The structural faults, falling harling, loose roof tiles, leaking balconies, damp penetration, poor sound insulation, and localised flooding were there for the world to see, and for the tenants to live with. These were the result of poor design, the substitution of cheaper building materials for those originally specified (a common trait in Design and Build projects at the time) a low standard of workmanship, aided and abetted by poor on-site supervision.      


Direct Action

In addition to the defective building fabric, the lack of social and community facilities was taking its toll on a community which already suffered unemployment levels at almost double that of the rate for Edinburgh at the beginning of 1981 (17.9% as opposed to 9.7%), with one in every  four 16-24 year olds out of work.  In a later report published in 1982 by Dr. Sarah Boyle, entitled Mental Health and The Community, it was estimated that one-quarter of the people in Wester Hailes may be suffering from varying degrees of mental illness, showing ‘a whole spectrum of disturbance of mood and feeling’.      

The reality of Wester Hailes had very little in common with the ‘civic qualities of former times’ which had been alluded to in the architect’s original submission to the Planning Department.      

Look out for the next post from Adam Dudley looking at “The Good” in his Memoirs of a Community Architect.       


1. Letter to Councillor Nigel Griffiths from the City of Edinburgh District Council Department of Architecture dated the 3rd November 1980 BACK TO POST

2. A survey in 1997 showed that only 40% of the available car space was used overnight BACK TO POST

3. An example was the Thrift Shop which was later established as the Community Workshop BACK TO POST


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