From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

The Bad, The Good and The Ugly Part 5

This is the fifth in a series of posts by Adam Dudley, an experienced architect who specialises in community architecture.  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.  In this final post, Adam concludes his thoughts by looking at the issues of funding and sustainability which had such a strong impact on Wester Hailes. 

THE UGLY (face of the ‘system’)

The Woods Youth Base that never was

 Hailed as ‘prefab pioneers’ we community architects in Wester Hailes had enjoyed our cameo in the Architects Journal, which, in October 1982, reported that

 ‘Community architecture is not confined to inner city areas where local groups have taken advantage of the resources of cheap vacant buildings. Social deprivation can be as serious in peripheral council estates, and here there are no vacant buildings that can easily be brought into use. Wester Hailes, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, is a striking example of a newly built neighbourhood where local people, with the help of sympathetic architects, have begun to build much needed facilities’.   [F1]

 The article pointed out that ‘Almost from the start Wester Hailes was designated an area of multiply deprivation and was included in the local authorities Social Community and Development Programme (SCPD)’. This was funded by the EEC, and although this initiative failed and was largely wound up by 1978, it did have a number of positive spin-offs, not least being the appointment of the ‘local coordinator’, Lawrence Demarco, who continued in the post specifically to assist local community and voluntary groups. The Architects Journal put much of the success in the community projects which followed down to Lawrence Demarco’s ‘Billy Connelly’ style of community work’.

By 1982 the Community Workshop was collectively employing up to 200 people on the Youth Opportunity Programme (YOP), Community Enterprise Programme (CEP), Urban Aid, and EEC funded projects. The generous supply of obsolete prefabricated classroom units and small grants from the Scottish Development Agency (SDA) and Urban Aid provided the building team of some 60 people with building materials for various community buildings. The community were succeeding where the council had failed. According to Lawrence Demarco, community bases were being built within a 6 month period of the initial request, and regularly at no cost whatsoever to the council. These were however meant to be temporary buildings, generally built on ground owned by the various council departments, with only temporary leases and temporary Planning Consents, on the premise that they would, in the future, be replaced with permanent ‘bricks and mortar’.  

 There was no denying the successes which the local community had brought about themselves in building the infrastructure of facilities which made it possible to improve on their lives in Wester Hailes. The reality however, was that the projects relied heavily on scraps of funding from a number of sources, all of which were vulnerable.  As the article in the Architect’s Journal concluded ‘Take away the Social Services Site, cut the funds for a key worker, deny the community its own architects, and the rug will be pulled from under so much voluntary effort’.   It was all very much a ‘balancing act’ for those trying to secure the funding for a project.  The determination and commitment was rooted in a critique of the state’s (local and central) inability to provide, yet these were the very same agencies which were have to be approached for the funding and resources. 

 The experience of Wester Hailes was being repeated throughout the country, with the same pattern of funding from the same sources.  Typically, a redundant or temporary building was being acquired at either low, or no cost (with financial assistance from the local authority, as necessary).  Urban Aid was paying for the building materials, and sometimes the fees, and the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) was paying for the building labour.  Any shortfall in project funding had to come from private sources or from fund raising.

 Confronted by the inner city riots in 1981, the Conservative Government, otherwise committed to cutting public expenditure, had increased its traditional urban programme allocation from £16.5 million in 1981-82 to 24.6 million in 1982-83, with a substantial increase going to the voluntary sector.  This was surely in recognition of their effectiveness in tackling inner city problems of deprivation and unemployment.  By July 1982 however, a shift in political emphasis was being detected, with concerns being raised about the dependence on state finance by inner city projects.  The solution, according to Tom King, the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services, was to ‘get the voluntary sector moving’, pointing out that

 ‘public money will never do all the jobs because there is such a massive amount to be done.  The Government will do what it can, but its skill is to maximise gearing with other funds to support projects’. 

 Projects could no longer be expected to receive a continual injection of public money.  The new policy was to ‘cut out waste’ and to ‘encourage’ projects to be self financing.  Projects obtaining funding under urban programme schemes were now to be ‘given time limits to stop them from running on and on’.  It was the beginning of the end of an era. 

Woods Centre 2009

 By the end of the 1980’s the high rise blocks in Westburn exemplified the classic problems of inner city urban decay, with chronic building failure and under investment in the surroundings.  Lettings were falling as people left and others refused to move in. The buildings which were meant to have a 60 year life ultimately managed to survive only 20 years, and were duly demolished when it became clear that refurbishment was not a sustainable option (shown in red on the site plan below).  Other buildings were soon to follow suit. 

Wester Hailes when completed, with the buildings that have since been demolished shown in red

 NB: Click on the map to see it at a larger size.  If you then hold the pointer over the image, you’ll see a magnifying glass icon. Click again and the picture will become larger.

It is with some irony that the ‘temporary huts’ in the guise of the Community Workshop and the Woods Youth Base still survive, some 30 years and 21 years on, although looking rather worse for wear, and somewhat removed from the utopian vision which I held back in the early 1980’s.


The Community Workshops 2009

 1. Architects Journal 20 October 1982, report by Tom WoolleyBACK TO POST


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