From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes


PLEASE NOTE: When Part 4 of YOU NAME IT, WE HAVE NOT GOT IT! was originally posted, some material which should not have formed part of the article was included by mistake.  Apologies for this.  The corrected version can now be read below.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been 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. 


WHAT was the first tenant organisation to be formed in Wester Hailes, a spontaneous reaction by the earliest residents who found the reality of daily life in an enormous construction site, where more and more housing and little else was being built around them, to be totally unacceptable.

 From the start, WHAT aimed high.  It was not driven by any specific set of political ideals but was very much idealistic in nature. The optimism, energy, ambition – the verve – of that first newsletter was remarkable.  As was the spirit of self-reliance, the sturdy determination, the commitment to independence of action that drove it forward.

 The people who set up WHAT could see where Wester Hailes was heading and that something had to be done, and quickly.  There was no option, in their view, but to roll up the sleeves and get stuck in.  It was a can-do must-do attitude.  They were not prepared to be deferential, to sit quietly, to rely on others.

 If power is defined as the capability to make things happen, that, fundamentally, was what they were after.  They sought to tear down the screens that hid the workings of power, to intervene directly in what had been a closed process.  The power to demand to be heard, the power to force authority’s hand – that was what WHAT was about.

 WHAT had wanted to show that “all of Wester Hailes is behind us” so the Corporation had no option but to listen and act.  Yet mobilising a large section of the community under one banner was a huge challenge.  WHAT attracted members, it got more than a little support, but a couple of hundred amongst thousands was not enough.  As a mass organisation it never really took off. By the test of pure numbers, it failed.  

 The community existed only in theory when WHAT started up, in reality it was a community of strangers.  A local identity had to be created from scratch.  People had to be convinced that it was worth trying to make Wester Hailes a better place, and then be kept enthused and committed to the cause in the face of continuing delays and disappointments.  The pleas for support that peppered the pages of the newsletters tell their own story – “volunteers of any age or size will be welcome”; “We need your help”; “it all depends on you”.

 Throughout its existence WHAT had to fight battles – wars of attrition really – on two fronts. The long drawn out campaign of pushing and prodding the Corporation to provide the many facilities that were lacking plus the struggle, possibly even more taxing, to keep hopes and morale high within the area.  An enormous effort for any local association to sustain over the years, no matter how determined and well organised.

 Against the odds, WHAT made a difference.  Wester Hailes was a better place because of its efforts.  The community centre (albeit temporary) got built, a mini bus was bought, there were clubs for kids and OAPs, annual gala days were held.  Despite having a request for funding rejected by Edinburgh Corporation, WHAT managed to raise, on its own, enough money in 1973 to set up a project staffed by volunteers to provide support for the elderly and housebound.  FISH (For Information and Social Help) survived and developed to the extent that, ten years on, it had an office, funding from Lothian Region’s Social Work Department and employed seven workers.

 However, WHAT fell far short in its objective of getting necessary facilities provided “a good bit quicker than the Corporation planned”.  Much was not put in place until the Association was long gone, including services which would be regarded as cornerstones of any decent sized community.  The local secondary school did not open until 1978 and the health centre a further five years after that. Wester Hailes would have to wait till 1987 to get its own police station and as late as 1997, thirty years after the first tenants moved in, for a library to be built.

WHAT might have been unable to muster the clout to change things on a big scale, but nevertheless it persisted. It did not collapse. It maintained its independence and integrity. It served the community as well as it was able. First and foremost, WHAT showed that local people were not powerless, that they could change and improve their circumstances. A fuse had been lit within Wester Hailes which would burn and fizz down the years, triggering the launching of new campaigns and organisations, igniting all sorts of fresh ideas and energies.


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