Over the next few weeks, we’re 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. Following on from last week, this post looks at the efforts of WHAT to highlight the needs of the community and to galvanise support from the neighbourhood.
YOU NAME IT, WE HAVE NOT GOT IT! PART 2
Officialdom can, and will, be brought to account. At the next public meeting, WHAT’S NEWS tells its readers, “We’re having someone from the Planning Department along. Possibly the City Architect himself.” The statement of intent is clear, now that WHAT is on the scene things are going to start moving, and quickly.
Lack of facilities is not the only issue, basic services need improving and the new committee is already on the case – “We’ve written to the Cleansing Dept about having more regular clean-ups here”. And it’s not just the Corporation it has in its sights – “We’ll write another letter to the G.P.O. about improving postal facilities”.
The significance with which the committee regards its correspondence can be sensed. These are no ordinary letters; they are issued by WHAT, the elected mouthpiece of the community of Wester Hailes. As such, they carry status and weight and should not be ignored.
The clear implication is that the “official channel” of existing political representation is not the way to get results. Or, perhaps, that avenue has already been explored and found to be less than satisfactory. Rather, the councillors seem to be viewed in much the same light as officials i.e. part and parcel of the Corporation monolith.
As with officials, local councillors will be expected to appear before WHAT. Straight away one of them has his card marked:
“As speakers we had Councillor Brian Meek (He’s one of the Councillors for this ward). Councillor George Foulkes was supposed to represent the Labour Party but did not turn up, sending along Trevor Davies, a Labour candidate, instead”.
And Councillor Meek, despite his position (or because of it), does not impress the meeting as being the right person to turn to for support and guidance in the future:
“Jock Henry, the Secretary of the Trades Council, made the best contribution of the evening, and various members of the audience have since said that we must have him back to give us the low down on the rents situation.”
That single phrase – “the low down on the rents situation” – says a lot. It tells of uncertainty and suspicion on the part of the people, a belief that they don’t know the true facts, that the full story has somehow been withheld from them, probably to their disadvantage. It signals a distinct lack of confidence that the Corporation has been, or will be, fair and open with its tenants.
The existing political structure has not worked for them. In their view, it has left them pretty much in the lurch. The Corporation has its own agenda and takes decision without reference to what they want. Now, in order to take up the cudgels on their own behalf, they are in the process of fashioning something new.
WHAT will seek to be as open and inclusive as it can, no-one is to be left out:
“There are a lot of pensioners & senior citizens living in the scheme. We’d like to see them at the next meeting to get their points of view about what’s needed. Teenagers, too. There’s no age limit to membership of WHAT.”
The focus is entirely on the wishes and needs of the residents, every one of them. It is they who will determine the direction and priorities of WHAT. Don’t be slow in coming forward is the message, don’t be shy. When he appears before them, the man from the Corporation should hear as full and frank a range of views from the audience as is possible:
“COME ALONG TO THE MEETING and tell him what you think the scheme needs. After all, you live in it, he doesn’t.”
This is the democratic principle at its most basic and vibrant. The community meets, debates and determines, face to face, and the will of that assembly is communicated to those whose job it is to implement decisions. Representation is rendered superfluous under such a process – officials find themselves recast, literally and directly, in the role of servants of the people.
Effective communication is the key to making this work. Decision number one of the committee, WHAT’S NEWS tells us, was to publish a newsletter. Wester Haileans may, at present, be living in something of an information vacuum but that’s a state of affairs which is going to be remedied:
“WHAT’S NEWS is designed to reflect & report what’s happening, is not happening or SHOULD be happening in Wester Hailes. You’re the people it will be concerned with. It’s your paper.”
For the first time people will really know what’s going on. But, more than that, the intention is to focus attention on where the powers-that-be are falling down on the job – or haven’t yet begun. Content will be determined by what matters to the community, the stuff that affects daily lives. If people think it’s important, it’s important.
“This newsletter is yours. If there’s anything you’d like to mention…let us know”
This is a community in the process of creating itself. At bottom, it is about discovering an identity: I am like you – you are like us – we’re all in this together. Recognition of this fosters unity and a shared purpose. Collective consciousness becomes the foundation for collective action.
WHAT is spearheading this and WHAT’S NEWS is the means by which it is endeavouring to galvanise the residents. Through it, a rallying cry is being broadcast, a recruitment drive launched and a campaign of action coordinated:
“If you haven’t already been chatted into taking-up membership by the person who sold you this newsletter, come along and join in the meeting on the 7th.”
WHAT has great ambitions but these are early, crucial days and impetus has to be maintained:
“WHAT is getting off the ground. We need the help and support of everyone…”
The new organisation is seeking to encourage as wide involvement as possible – numbers are a sign of strength and evidence of its legitimacy to speak and act for the community.
“The more the merrier. The bigger we are, the more we’ll be able to do.”
The next public meeting will be when the campaign really kicks off. It is to be a demonstration of the depth of feeling within Wester Hailes, proof that the groundswell of opinion is of a scale that can’t be ignored or easily neutralised.
WHAT’s objective is to force authority’s hand – to get better amenities “…a good bit quicker than the Corporation planned we should have them.” A public meeting might be the most immediate way of creating an impact but the committee is also thinking in terms of the long haul. Straight off, in the opening paragraph, that is made evident:
“This is the first newsletter to be published by WHAT (The Wester Hailes Association of Tenants). We hope that there will be many more, and that as things get better financially, the form of the newsletter will improve.”
However, if WHAT is to be about more than the short term, more than a vehicle to whip up local feeling and get bums on seats at a few meetings, then proper resources will be required – specifically, money and manpower.
There’s only one place WHAT can turn to for this – the community itself. People will have to be prepared to stump up their own cash. WHAT’S NEWS is not being handed out, it is being sold (price 3d). Anyone living in Wester Hailes, from teenagers to pensioners, can join the Association’s ranks but at a cost: “3/- membership fee (5/- joint membership for couples)”.
Goodwill and generosity have already got the ball rolling:
“WHAT has received its first donation – or rather donations. Two ladies have each donated 5/- which means that WHAT is now in funds.”
Nevertheless, WHAT is not simply expecting to rely on subsidies from those it is endeavouring to represent. A plan has been drawn up, and is about to be implemented, to generate income. In order to do so, people will be asked to give of their time as well as their money:
“We’re going to organise a regular paper collection to supplement WHAT’s funds. The money we get from the sales of paper will enable us to pay for other things. Volunteers are urgently needed to help in this. It’ll take maybe one night a fortnight.”
If the Association is going to survive, if it is going to put down proper roots and become an effective force in the long term, it has to have, not just supporters, but enthused and committed workers. Producing a regular newsletter, selling it on the street and collecting enough paper from homes throughout Wester Hailes to maintain a significant income stream, will require hard graft, week in, week out.
“Volunteers of any age or size will be welcome.”
The intention is to have the paper collection underway very soon “probably just after the New Year” and the wider community has to be convinced to play its part as well:
“So, save all the wrapping from those presents! Paper of any kind will be acceptable.”
WHAT’s goal is to get everyone pulling together: selling newsletters, buying them, saving paper, collecting paper – self-reliance is at its core. And, the extent to which it can make a success of this will produce a corresponding benefit in terms freedom of action. Beholden to no-one, WHAT will have the means to act as it sees fit to pursue its own ends.