From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

A GIANT SCANDAL? A HUGE MISTAKE?

– A Process of Stigmatisation in Action

Even when the building programme was still in its early phases, criticism of Wester Hailes had begun to surface publicly. In December 1969, one City Councillor proposed a motion that the whole design and scale of the scheme should be reconsidered and the Evening News report of the debate highlighted his comment that he “would certainly not want to live there”. The article also recorded discussion about the “unattractiveness” of multi-storey housing (a major component of the development) and the general consensus that such flats were likely to be “difficult to let”.

A pattern had already been established and although, a year later, The Scotsman ran a story which was positive and upbeat in tone, even this chose to emphasise the sheer size of the new scheme, an aspect which the press would, in future, return to again and again from a far more negative standpoint. Describing it as “Edinburgh’s biggest housing development for 200 years”, the paper informed readers that the projected population of Wester Hailes would be equivalent to those of Linlithgow, Rothesay, Crieff and Grantown-on-Spey combined and that not since the construction of The New Town had the city undertaken a building project on such a scale.

Six months on, and under the headline “Meet 10,000 people with nothing to do”, a two day special report in the Evening News on “the Wester Hailes housing giant” painted an almost uniformly bleak picture – vandalism, dearth of facilities, tenant apathy and lack of community spirit.  Negative comments about the place by various Councillors such as “a huge housing mistake” which “should never have been built” were quoted at length. Described by the writer as “this collection of impersonal architecture”, the article was accompanied by suitably stark photos of housing blocks.

Then, in June 1974, the News really put the boot in. “THE SCANDAL OF WESTER HAILES” and “The Hailes Indictment” were the headlines this time. The paper informed its readers in big bold print that the estate was “a poverty-stricken area…where people are unable to pay their rents…where old people are terrified to turn on their heating…where marriage break-ups, delinquency and a total lack of amenities…threaten to destroy community life”. The content of the article, based on “a shock report” by the Social Work Department, was so damming that it provoked a swift response from the Wester Hailes Association of Tenants who, a week later, having carried out a residents survey of its own, stated that:

“A lot of anger was expressed by residents about the article and claims made in the report. This seemed to be the general feeling in all areas visited. They felt it was a slur on the people of Wester Hailes”

It certainly cannot be denied that Wester Hailes, from the outset, suffered from problems directly related to the design and construction of the housing and a serious lack of facilities, but its sustained public vilification by politicians and the press for political or sensationalist ends simply compounded these difficulties. The examples quoted above all come from the period when the estate was still under construction. By the time of its completion, in 1975, it would already seem to have become a byword for all that was wrong with council housing. Wester Hailes had become firmly fixed in peoples’ minds as nothing more than a big, bad and ugly mistake. This was a bad news story that would run and run over the decades to come, only hindering attempts to turn the place around.

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