From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes


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.  


The Wester Hailes Association of Tenants faced an early attempt to limit its independence. In February 1971, the Edinburgh Evening News reported on a “lively” public meeting at which a proposal that it should become a community association was discussed and rejected by members.  According to WHAT’s Chairman, Hector Campbell:

 “We decided that until such times as we acquire a community centre, no benefits would be obtained from being a community association.  The feeling of the meeting was that we will only be able to get a community centre by our own efforts and this will be one of the main objects of our future programme.”

 A further reason for this rejection, according to the Evening News, was because WHAT’s members “did not want to be out-numbered by Corporation nominees on the administrative committee”.  The Association’s go-it-alone philosophy had been challenged, openly debated and then reaffirmed. Authority was to be kept at arm’s length and independence safeguarded.  

 The article also reported that the waste paper collection project had been launched and hopes were high:

 “Collection organiser Tommy Robertson has been researching the subject and has discovered that Penicuik Town Council collected £204 last month from waste paper, and Bonnyrigg and Lasswade made even more.”

  Wester Hailes had more houses than any of these places so “prospects were bright”, it said (quoting the second issue of WHAT’S NEWS) that a steady income could be realised.

  In March 1973 the Evening News carried a two day special investigative report into Wester Hailes. On day one, under the twin headline  “What Wester Hailes Needs Urgently Is Community Spirit And A Feeling Of Belonging” and “They’re Working Together For Their Identity”, the controversy that had already attached itself to the place was noted:

 “…Wester Hailes, Edinburgh Corporation’s latest council housing estate described variously as “a big mistake,” “Little Tibet” and “exclusively a success story.”

 And its distinctively unprepossessing appearance briefly sketched:

 “…flats which viewed downhill looked like the Dalai Lama’s residence…blocks of square rigged flats that make Portobello Power Station look like the ideal home.”

 But the majority of the article was about WHAT, the efforts of its members and their opinions and complaints:

 “What is it like to live in Wester Hailes, the huge housing estate on the Western fringes of Edinburgh?  Today and tomorrow we look at the area and the people who are working hard to improve it.  They call themselves WHAT – and are looking, as a priority, at the community with a special emphasis on identity for the people living there.

 WHAT’s committee were “triers” who wanted to make Wester Hailes more than “just a dormitory for Edinburgh commuters”.  But the struggle they faced was also made much of – the poor reputation of the place; the fact that, out of a population of many thousands, WHAT could only muster 200 members; the difficulty of engendering any community spirit when “most of the people on the estate don’t even know their next-door neighbour”.

 Exacerbating this was a lack of even the most basic community facilities. WHAT’s committee had to meet in a classroom in Dumbryden Primary School “decorated with multi-colour paper depicting space rockets and a brighter, united Europe” to plan how to turn things around.  The tea they drank to refresh themselves was brewed in one of the school urns.

 “We’re still using the school because the mobile community centre the Lord Provost promised would be here at Christmas ’72 didn’t materialise…the mobile community centre would be a wooden hut affair that would last us for about three years.  The bricks and mortar community centre is on the Corporation’s drawing board.  Wester Hailes people have not much confidence of its erection until the 1980s.”

 Day 2 of the report (headline: “Meet 10,000 People With  Nothing To Do”) continued to paint a picture of discord and disadvantage – a small, embattled group struggling against the odds and getting nowhere fast, a place sinking under the weight of its problems.

 A member of WHAT expressed dissatisfaction with local councillor Brian Meek who he said “has never come to any of our meetings although he has been invited. What’s he doing to help us?”  Councillor Meek bemoaned that fact that he was one of three councillors who had to cover Colinton ward, the biggest in the city, and that Wester Hailes should have its own councillors.  According to the article, he claimed to have helped set up WHAT but now didn’t know who was chairman and hadn’t received any correspondence from the Association “for almost a year”.

 A sense of isolation and dislocation was pinpointed by the Reverend White of Holy Trinity, the recently built church, as a fundamental issue:

 “There are those who feel the wrench from Edinburgh or Leith into this new housing estate is too much and return a few months after arriving here…Many feel that the sheer distance of Wester Hailes from the city centre is unbearable.  There are others whose ties are all in the city.  For instance, Edinburgh contains their jobs, their aunts and grannies all live in the old toun.”

 To the police, the case was clear cut – the people themselves were the root of the problem. A “senior police spokesman” at Torphichen Street Police Station which covered Wester Hailes (located in the heart of the city more than five miles away) pronounced:

 “When people don’t care about their own environment and social life, one cannot expect them to be as cooperative with the police as are people who do care what goes on in their neighbourhood”.

 Unsurprisingly, this “special report” sought out the bad news and it hardly had to dig deep to come up with lots (and, in so doing, neatly helping along the process of stigmatisation).  Lack of facilities, mounting problems, bitterness and disappointment, accusations and recriminations – all that was real, but on the other side of the coin was a group of people who weren’t giving up.  And these “triers” would keep trying, speaking out for Wester Hailes, working to make things happen.

 By 1974, WHAT’S NEWS had become WHAT NEWS.  It looked a bit different, the typeface had changed, the layout had been revamped and there were adverts for local shops.  The committee listed on the back page had grown from 11 to 15 but was entirely different, bar one, from the original group of people in 1970.  The Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer were all new.

 However, the language was much the same, the spirit and ambition no less.  The March issue of ’74 was able to announce some big steps forward:

  “This week flags should be flying high over the roof tops of Wester Hailes.  The good neighbour scheme has got off the ground in Dumbryden, we expect to collect our new mini-bus on the 26th March and the contractors have said that the temporary community centre will be handed over to the Corporation on the 21st March”

 Nevertheless, under the headline of “SUCCESS OR FAILURE?” the newsletter made a point of spelling out the challenges that now presented themselves.  Everything which had been achieved had come “through hard work and long battles” but, in fact, it was only the beginning:

 “…this success brings its own problems.  Having gained these things we must make sure they are put to maximum use, and this can only be done if we have your support and your ideas.  So success or failure depends on you.”

 The committee had lots of ideas for the community centre – more playgroups, discos, shops, OAP afternoons, a young mums’ club – but it also wanted to know what everyone else thought. “What about your ideas?” it asked, “This is your community centre after all”.

The authorities still had to be confronted and badgered but the fight, it seemed, had become as much (even more?) about keeping the people of Wester Hailes engaged and motivated. WHAT evidently saw the situation as quite fragile – if its efforts slackened only a little, momentum could quickly be lost.

 Again and again the same message was hammered out: “In the end it all depends on you” – “Participation by you is a great weapon, let’s use it” – “Apathy is a killer of communities” – “We need your help”.

 The 10 separate contracts which comprised the main construction programme produced over 4,500 homes spread over seven neighbourhoods – and four shops.  That same March issue of WHAT NEWS announced a long awaited opening:

 “Shopping should be a lot easier in Wester Hailes when the new shopping centre opens. A spokesman for City Wall said that it would be open no later than the end of May…no longer will we have to travel into town when we want anything more exotic than a tin of beans or a packet of cornflakes. Think of the money you will be able to save on bus fares.”

 The same newsletter was also able to tell people that the bus service was going to be significantly expanded and a local rent office was being built which would save them the “long walk up to Sighthill”.  However, despite this, the needs of the community were “still great”.  A Social Club, a Work Shop and a Day Care Centre were specifically mentioned.

 “The main problem in getting these appears to be lack of ground, not to name foresight and planning. What we need is Action, not talk. If you know of any bits of ground that have possibilities then tell us about them.”

 Despite WHAT’s best efforts, nothing happened quickly and often it was painfully slow.  It was only “after asking for it for the last three years” that the rent office was finally being provided.  The community centre was “a glimmer of light” but they had only got that “after a long struggle”.  The shopping centre which was to have opened “no later than the end of May” and was going to save all those bus fares actually did not do so until October.

 By 1974 the vast majority of the homes in Wester Hailes had been completed.  There were now seven distinct neighbourhoods within the estate as a whole and smaller groups had been formed by local people in those areas to address their particular needs and problems.  Exactly like WHAT, they were formally constituted and independently run and controlled by the tenants themselves.

 The next year saw profound changes. Complete reorganisation of local government took place.  Edinburgh Corporation was scrapped and replaced by a two tier structure that split important, related functions such as Housing, Education and Social Work between Edinburgh District Council and Lothian Regional Council.  An entirely new political context came into being.

 In Wester Hailes the Social and Community Development Programme was launched.  This aimed to produce unified solutions to social problems in contrast to the piecemeal approach of the old Corporation.  SCDP was bankrolled by the EEC and Central Government with additional support from the District and Regional Councils and was the first influx of serious funding into the estate.

 At the same time, in a move of great significance, SCDP set up a local advisory committee – promptly christened Scooby-Doo – to help decide how this money should be spent.  Scooby-Doo included representatives from each of the local tenants associations and became the main focus for the community’s efforts to get better facilities, effectively supplanting home-grown WHAT which now disappeared from the scene.


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