Protest is very much in the news at present with the occupation of St. Andrew’s Square in Edinburgh linked in to similar protests elsewhere across the world. There are many opinions about direct action, whether it is needed, whether it is effective, but it is a route that has sometimes led to major social changes, particularly when it has been able to galvanise popular opinion to challenge powerful institutions and structures on issues of injustice and civil rights.
People in Wester Hailes had limited routes in which to highlight the problems they faced. Throughout the early years in particular, there was a history of protest using direct action to tackle the lack of facilities, the faults in the buildings and the increasing cuts to already limited services. People took direct action by attending meetings, joining in with petitions, demonstrations and sit-ins. Public meetings attracted large turn outs as local residents sought to make their voices heard.
Cuts in housing maintenance by Edinburgh District Council in 1980 led to large local meetings at which there were calls for “less talk and more action”. The meetings fed into a city wide campaign where it was agreed to have a Mass Day of Complaints” with as many people as possible registering their individual complaint on the same day. There was also a series of protest actions planned.
In 1982, residents from Dumbryden demonstrated outside the City Chambers before the Edinburgh District Housing Committee was due to meet to discuss the findings of the McData report. £5 million worth of building faults had been discovered and local tenants were angry that more was not being done to address the issues. They felt their voices were not being heard during the investigative process which did not record tenants’ comments or allow space for them to be consulted. You can read more about this story by clicking here on Sentinel February 1982.
When local concerns continued to be answered only with official excuses of there being insufficient money in the budget to provide the repairs needed, Wester Hailes tenants staged a sit- down protest at a full District Council meeting. 70 tenants sat down in the main council chamber and refused to leave. The police were called and the demonstration left peacefully, carrying on the protest outside. You can read more about the protest by clicking here on Sentinel May 1982.
The buildings in Wester Hailes had many faults needing rectified but one in particular, the drying screens, seemed to represent the frustration of local residents and their feelings that their voices were being ignored and their needs marginalised. In April 1981 the District Council discovered that the drying screens were made of potentially hazardous material. Cheap plastic with a low fire rating had been used instead of the required fire-retardant grade. 4,324 homes were affected and all the drying screens needed to be replaced. In June 1981, the council decided to remove the drying screens, but had no apparent plans or schedule in place to replace them. Contractors began to remove screens in a seemingly arbitrary and random way. Tenants who refused to allow the removal of the screens faced legal action. Stories started to emerge of clothes being stolen or vandalised, tenants failing to receive compensation, and altercations breaking out with the contractors. You can read this story by clicking here on Sentinel July 1981.
Nobody disagreed that a fire hazard should be removed, but there was no indication that any replacement was on offer. Tenants took their protest to the City Chambers, demonstrating outside and hanging up washing there. By August 1981, the situation was still unresolved, with a debate at the District Council being characterised with laughter over the issue from the Tory benches. You can read this story by clicking here on Sentinel August 1981. A report provided five possible replacement options that the Council were investigating. With budget constraints, it was thought that replacement work would not begin until the following summer. It is to the credit of local residents in the face of this response that they did not give up but continued to campaign for better living conditions.