MEMOIRS OF A COMMUNITY ARCHITECT- THE BAD, THE GOOD AND THE UGLY
The survey carried out in 1977 (Wester Hailes speaks for itself) had also made the comparison with Musselburgh, and had shown the dire disparity between each of the communities in the social and community facilities which each offered. Musselburgh, for example boasted 51 food shops where Wester Hailes had only 9, and had 16 social clubs and 27 restaurants, cafes and pubs serving the community, where Wester Hailes had none, apart from the Hotel. Wester Hailes didn’t even have a Police Station, or Health Centre, or Social Work Department, and there was very little on offer for young children or teenagers.
In response to the complete absence of facilities, plans were put in place by local activists at the end of 1977 to build a community base (the embryonic Community Workshop) alongside the ‘Venchie’ adventure playground in Hailesland Place, which had been created by some of the tenants from Murrayburn. The Community Workshop was to be wholly owned by the people of Wester Hailes and be managed by a locally based committee, comprising a member from each of the tenant groups, a non-voting observer from the Social and Community Programme, and the Area Co-ordinator (for the Social and Community Development programmed funded by Lothian Region) also with no voting rights. By the summer of 1978 the Community Workshop was up and running, complete with a fully operational cafe, the Café Venchie. The community newspaper, the ‘Sentinel’, which first came into being in 1977, operating from a community flat in Murrayburn, was given permanent staff accommodation, and other office space was given over to a solicitor (Citizens Advice Bureau) and the Area Co-ordinator.
The Community Workshop was very much the start of a grass-roots movement to establish similar bases in each of the individual areas of Wester Hailes.
Successful applications to the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) for a Youth Opportunities Programme (YOP) were followed by an application for an Urban Aid grant, and by the end of 1979 had created various full-time posts to help expand the community development (Resource officer, information officer, community workers, clerical staff, etc.) in addition to the Area Co-ordinators post, which was still directly funded by Lothian Region.
The option of using some of the vacant housing stock for community use had been previously tested, with some success, but was finally abandoned by early 1980, as a result of local government bureaucracy. And so it was, in the face of the council’s inability or unwillingness to provide the much-needed social facilities, that the local communities set about establishing their own bases – or ‘huts’ as they became known. However, whilst the Urban Aid Grant was in place to meet the running costs, there was very little funding available for the actual building costs. What was available from the Scottish Development Agency was nowhere near the level of funding required for purpose-built community bases, and it was this grim reality that gave birth to the process of re-cycling disused pre-fabricated classroom units for providing a community base in each area.
By the end of 1980 the community ‘hut’ at Westburn was nearing completion, and Park & Drive were awaiting the removal of asbestos from their prospective base. Murrayburn had their sights set on a redundant telecom hut in Fountainbridge, and Dumbryden had negotiated the use of two unused classrooms in the local primary school. Clovenstone, Hailesland, and Calders, either had some form of community base or had plans underway. By early 1981, Wester Hailes Community Enterprises Ltd. had been set up (through the MSC) to provide local employment, with its building squads active on the community bases, and with ambitions to develop other community facilities, such as a hairdresser and launderette.
The Wester Hailes Urban Regeneration Programme Advisory Committee (WHURPAC) had been set up at the beginning of 1980 and had helped co-ordinate a campaign throughout 1981 to highlight the housing defects, which had, in turn, led to the independent survey by the MacData research unit. When Edinburgh District Council however refused to allow tenant participation in this survey, the Sentinel conducted its own housing investigation (Oct 1981 – Feb 1982). Local democracy was expanding and in 1981 the Wester Hailes Representative Council came into being, to help represent the wider interests in Wester Hailes. It was to act as ‘a liaison group for all groups in Wester Hailes and to provide a forum for discussion’. Its stated aims were ‘to encourage and stimulate local residents in Wester Hailes, enabling them to create a caring, humane and independent community’.
Before long, a wide range of interest groups were being represented, from various tenants groups, to unemployed workers, parents groups, handicapped children supports, adventure playgrounds, citizens advice, and so on.
Meanwhile, back in the comfortable, purpose-built surroundings of university, I had elected to challenge the architect’s ‘impotence’, and had set about ‘re-designing’ Wester Hailes, or rather part of it (Clovenstone). As a starting point I had compiled a questionnaire for circulating to a 10% sample of the Wester Hailes residents, and I approached Gus Macfadyen, Editor of Sentinel, to see whether this might be distributed with the newspaper. Without going into the detail of the ‘negotiations’ which ensued, I promptly found myself preparing drawings for a new community base at Park & Drive, and I ended my academic year at university by taking up employment as a ‘community architect’ in Wester Hailes, funded under the Manpower Services Commission Scheme. As a footnote, I did indeed ‘re-design‘ Clovenstone, albeit as an academic exercise, and managed to convince myself that architects could be more ‘fertile’ in their thinking!
Based at the Community Workshop, with fellow ‘community architect’ Andy Jack, working directly with the ‘community’ and home-grown building squads proved to be a very steep learning curve from day one. Any romantic pre-conceptions which I might have had about the role of a ‘community architect’ were immediately laid to rest. It would be fair to say that the building workers, most of whom were teenagers employed under the Youth Opportunity Programme did not immediately take to my presence. My ‘credentials’ as a ‘local boy’ carried no currency. Clovenstone was generally perceived as the posh end of Wester Hailes, besides which I had, by then, moved out of the family home and was now flat sharing in Morningside! The truth was that we were all ‘finding our feet’, and notwithstanding the inevitable ‘face-offs’ the humanity, mediated through the humour, prevailed, and a real sense of teamwork developed. Jack McNeil, the manager of Wester Hailes Community Enterprises Ltd (the local building company set up under the Community Enterprise Programme) was a central figure. Jack had a genuine passion for the community, and everyone loved and respected him. For Jack, the ‘process’ of carrying out each building project was every bit as important as the end results. It was always about ‘bringing people on’, especially those in greatest need.
This was the early 1980’s with inner city riots very much in the news, and Wester Hailes had long been designated as an area of multiple deprivation. Against this backdrop, many community projects were successfully built. We all learnt ‘on the job’ as an integrated team, comprising a works foreman, squad supervisors, clerical staff, and a ratio of 1 tradesman to 8/9 labourers.
We collectively created safe and functional community buildings, and the pinnacle of our achievement was undoubtedly the community workshop complex, which included a café, bar and social club, hairdressers, thrift shop, and various offices. The ‘architecture’ may have had a rather impoverished aesthetic, resulting from the second-hand, recycled building materials and the limited building skills available, but these buildings, alongside the ‘Mad Max’ playground structures appearing throughout Wester Hailes, were very much ‘for the people by the people’.