Over the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring a series of posts by Roy McCrone, looking at the formation and development of the first residents’ group to be formed in Wester Hailes. The Wester Hailes Association of Tenants (WHAT) campaigned on a wide range of issues and their hard work and aspirations for the area created the conditions for a series of initiatives to be developed.
YOU NAME IT, WE HAVE NOT GOT IT! PART 1
The initial planning study for Wester Hailes had no doubt as to what mattered most – the quality of life of the residents. All aspects of the layout and design were to have regard to their safety, convenience and enjoyment. It talked of finding ways to counterbalance the “demerits of industrialised and repetitive housing” and the necessity of promoting a sense of belonging.
Construction of the housing began in January 1967. Over 4,800 homes were to be provided on 287 acres of land, the largest single building project undertaken in Edinburgh since the creation of the New Town, two hundred years before. Wester Hailes would be equivalent in population, it was said, to Linlithgow, Rothesay, Crieff and Grantown-on-Spey combined.
On 10th December 1970, a public meeting was held at which the Wester Hailes Association of Tenants – WHAT – was formed. Issue number one of WHAT’S NEWS later that month spelled out exactly why it had been set up:
“What’s WHAT all about? There is a crying need for a variety of things out here. We’re paying hefty rents & rates & getting very little in return. A primary school, a shop and lots of houses. That about sums up Wester Hailes. We need a secondary school quickly, we need a community centre, nursery or pre-school facilities for the very young children & their mothers, a club of some kind for our teenagers, more shops, a post office, letter boxes & you name it we have not got it!”
The massive construction programme continued to plough ahead and was about to reach its height but all was far from right. The first homes had been occupied no more than three years before, yet dissatisfaction and frustration had plainly been building apace with the housing.
Nearly forty years on, WHAT’s first newsletter retains an immediacy that is striking. A straightforward no-nonsense approach and calm determination colour every sentence. The language is down to earth and the message clear: things are not the way they should be, but we – the people of Wester Hailes – can get them sorted.
The agenda is practical and specific. Any suspicion of ideology or hidden agendas being involved is kicked briskly into touch:
“What’s behind WHAT? Someone at the meeting suggested that we might be Communist agitators out to stir things up. It’s a point of view, I suppose, but it’s a pretty daft one.”
WHAT has been established by the community, freely and openly, according to democratic principles:
“A committee was elected from the floor of the hall, with members from the three “areas” in the scheme (Dumbryden, Hailesland & Murrayburn), plus a chairman, secretary & a treasurer. Their names and addresses are all on the back of this newsletter. Ask them if they regard themselves as Communist agitators…”
The residents of Wester Hailes have a shared grievance – “We’re paying hefty rents & rates & getting very little in return”. The Corporation is failing to honour its part of the deal. At the same time, for any one of them, as individuals, to get a fair hearing from those in authority would simply be impossible:
“ If you were to go along to the Planning Department of the Corporation to say you thought there should be better facilities in Wester Hailes you wouldn’t get any further than a clerk at the front desk”
On their own they are insignificant and ineffectual. But there is another option. The power to demand to be heard can be generated by banding together and speaking with a single, united voice. It all boils down to a simple and stark equation:
“Bodies like the Corporation pay more attention to other bodies than they do to individuals. The bigger the body, the better the attention”
Organising and acting collectively, therefore, is the way to get proper redress. People as individuals may be powerless but together they have the ability to force the Corporation to take notice of them. Once that happens an entirely different power relationship will come into being:
“…if we get someone along from the Planning Department to a public meeting and there are enough of us there to show him that all of Wester Hailes is behind us, they’ll listen, and they’ll act.”
Look out for the next post in this series where we’ll have the very first edition of the WHAT newsletter for you to see.