When contemplating the many mistakes made in the construction of Wester Hailes, it is important to remember what factors drove it’s planning and building. Whilst from its earliest days it was clear that wrong decisions had been taken, the underlying reason for its existence was an attempt to combat extremely poor housing conditions and to solve the city centre slum problems.
Pat Rogan, Edinburgh’s first Labour Party chairman of housing died last week aged 92. His obituary can be found by clicking here. He was appointed to the post in 1962 to tackle the ongoing scandal of Edinburgh’s slums and said that his only purpose in becoming a councillor was to rid the town of its slums. As in many cities across the country, population changes and little investment had led to appalling housing conditions in high density poorly maintained neighbourhoods. Intensive bombing campaigns during the 2nd World War had left a legacy of destroyed or damaged homes, compounding the housing shortage. Overcrowded, unsanitary tenements raised public health concerns.
Pat Rogan’s determination and drive transformed the lives of thousands of people. His appointment came after Edinburgh had been placed in the spotlight for dragging its heels when it came to tackling the slum issue. Thomas Oswald MP referred to the “lackadaisical Edinburgh Corporation”, reporting in the Commons in 1959 that 2 further tenement buildings had been evacuated as a result of disrepair. In 1964, Edinburgh MPs were again pressing the Secretary Of State For Scotland for results, pointing out that Edinburgh had the worst record of all large towns.
Slum clearances in other areas had in fact begun in the inter war years with planners identifying the outskirts of cities as the best place to build. The emphasis at that time was on creating self-contained communities with well-built family housing. However, speed of construction and cost became the overriding priority and planners turned their attention to higher density models, prefabs and “streets in the sky”. By the time Wester Hailes was built the government was requiring 100 people to be housed per net residential acre.
Pat Rogan’s achievements were outstanding and many people’s lives and health were improved through his drive and commitment. Very few of us now remember what slum conditions in this city were like or the misery of severe overcrowding. Wester Hailes was built in the light of this. But in the drive to cut costs and meet quotas, short-term high density solutions were all that was considered. Housing conditions despite the construction faults were better than those of the slum tenements. But it takes a lot more than bricks to create well being as people moving into Wester Hailes quickly found.
There are many lessons to be learned from the Wester Hailes experience for us today. Figures released today by the government in Westminster show that there is now a shortage of around a million homes in the UK, with house building being at its lowest since records began. There must be great temptation to simply replicate history, building as quickly and as cheaply as possible and presenting these houses as better than no houses at all. But to ignore the experience of Wester Hailes would be short sighted, and surely in this day and age Britain can afford to at least house its people decently. Investment today would save us a whole lot more further down the line.
You can read more about the construction of Wester Hailes and the history leading up to this in David Pirie’s article, The Road To Wester Hailes.