1988 marked a turning point in the history of Wester Hailes. A phase in its evolution ended, quite suddenly, with the mass extinction of a unique form of community life – “The Huts”. In March 1989 Susan Dalgety wrote a piece in the Sentinel entitled THE END OF AN ERA which was both a sad farewell to these locally-run neighbourhood centres and a celebration of what they had been and had achieved.
The genesis of this phenomenon came about in the late nineteen seventies when Laurence Demarco, Lothian Regional Council’s local Area Liaison Officer at the time, came up with a bold new idea. He arranged for transportable classroom units which had become surplus to requirements to be brought to Wester Hailes to provide the premises for community initiatives controlled and managed by local volunteers. Before long every area had at least one of these huts providing residents with a social centre, a base for local campaigning and a spur for further construction projects such as the creation of adventure playgrounds. By the time the first community map of Wester Hailes was drawn up by the Rep Council in 1983, there were fifteen or more of these self-built initiatives including a cafe, community workshops, a nursery, a play hut, a youth hut, four adventure playgrounds and half a dozen neighbourhood centres.
Susan described her article as “a personal view” and in it she recounted how her first introduction to community activity was attending an AGM in the hut which housed the Clovenstone Adventure Playground and Tenants Association. “If it had not been for the Huts”, she wrote, “I would have remained a lonely and bored housewife, concerned only with the price of bread and the latest knitting pattern. I owe them.” Within six weeks she was the Chairperson of CAPTA and that led on to involvement with the Sentinel (subsequently becoming editor), the Rep Council and “meeting scores of people who were all working hard to make the area a better place to live in”.
In the early eighties, the Huts gained access to much larger amounts of grant through the Manpower Services Commission’s Community Programme. For the first time it became possible to employ paid workers to deliver services and the scale of operations expanded significantly. At the peak of their activities there were some Huts projects employing a dozen or more workers. But, at the same time, they remained the centres of local social life. They were the places “where wee Johnnie had his birthday party, where the Halloween party was held and where the adults had their parties”.
However, according to Susan, the seeds of destruction had also been sown. Projects became dependant on the funding provided through the Community Programme and other fundraising more or less ground to a halt. Then, when the Community Programme was replaced by Employment Training scheme at the end of 1987 it became apparent that funding would no longer be available for the local Huts and their projects.
The end came quickly. Like a species totally dependant on just one type of food the Huts were unable to adapt and survive the sudden withdrawal of the funding lifeblood they had come to expect and rely on. One by one during 1988 nearly all of them closed down. Some premises simply lay empty and mouldered away others were taken over by the big new beast on the block, the Wester Hailes Management Training Agency set up under the auspices of Employment Training.
Susan concluded her own personal valediction thus:
“I wonder if we will ever recreate that atmosphere that was unique in the Huts…when I am in the middle of an ever-so serious discussion about the sub-processes and strategies that now seem to take up the whole of Wester Hailes Community activity, I often remember a Halloween party in the Clovie Hut. There I was, dressed as a Bunny Girl, getting pelted with treacle and monkey nuts by thirty or so boisterous youngsters and I loved every minute of it.”
“I can’t imagine that ever happening in a Partnership meeting. And without an outlet for the less serious things in life, which the Huts did their best to provide, then I think this community’s spirit will be that much poorer.”