From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

REHOUSING THE CAPITAL: THE CRUSADE AGAINST EDINBURGH’S SLUMS (PART ONE)

In November 2011, we posted an article about former city councillor Pat Rogan who had just died aged 92. We described him as “a local politician of pivotal significance in the drive to transform Edinburgh’s housing conditions in the mid-twentieth century”; highlighting the fact that he had helped to spearhead “a major programme of slum clearance in the central areas of of the city and the provision of thousands of new homes which included the building of Wester Hailes”.

Mr Rogan had very kindly given us a copy of a speech entitled “Rehousing The Capital: The Crusade Against Edinburgh’s Slums” which he had delivered to a housing conference in the 1990s, following his retirement. His speech painted a vivid, sometimes humourous, sometimes shocking picture of the problems and challenges which he had to face. We included a number of extracts from it in our article and now, over the next four weeks, we are going to reproduce it in its entirety. Over to you Pat…

In the year 1954, much against my wish, or desire, I was elected a councillor to Edinburgh Corporation. At that time, one third of the Council retired by rotation, which meant that 23 seats had to be filled. At that election, following the usual trend, eight candidates were returned  unopposed – or, as we used to say at the time, returned unexposed! In the ward where I was elected, the sitting councillor had resigned, and the Ward Party was unable to find anyone to replace him. Without a candidate, the seat, normally safe Labour, would have been presented to the Progressives. To avoid such a calamity, I was persuaded to enter the ring, but I did so on the strict understanding that I would hold the seat for one year only, which would give the Ward Party ample time to find my successor. Twenty years later, with good behaviour, I was let out!

I had no ambition to hold public office, and I was quite content within the Labour Party to be a backroom worker, and help others become MPs and councillors. In 1950, I was the election agent for Andrew Gilzean, the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh Central; and when he died I was offered the vacancy, which I declined. The man who was selected for the seat, Tom Oswald, held it for the next 21 years until he retired.

So, you see, I was not overjoyed at becoming a councillor. But, realising the responsibility that had been thrust upon me, I attempted to find out what the job entailed. I sought advice among my more experienced colleagues, but I learned little from them, mainly because they suffered from what I can only describe as “committee preoccupation”: that is, they knew a great deal about their own committees, but not a great deal about committees that didn’t arouse their interest. There was an element of snobbery about committee selection, so I, being a newcomer and a building trade worker – was placed on the Housing Committee, and a couple of others that were considered of little importance.

The composition of Edinburgh Corporation at that time was interesting. The Progressive Party had a high proportion of retired people, businessmen and housewives who could afford the time. The Labour Party had a few small businessmen, some trade union officials, some housewives, but just a handful of artisans. The progressives had a majority of 2:1. The year before my arrival, councillors, for the first time, became able to claim loss of earnings, which provided a maximum of £1 for a full day and 10s for four hours. As these amounts represented about half of what a tradesman could earn, I, and a few others, found ourselves subsidising Edinburgh Town Council. On the credit side, one was provided with a bus pass, and a lunch, if attending committees.

My lack of experience, my ignorance, amd my innocence were fully exposed a few weeks after becoming a councillor. One very wet and windy night, a deputation, consisting of half a dozen folk from a tenement in the Canongate, arrived at my door. Their roof was leaking badly, their houses were almost flooded, and what was I going to do about it? I didn’t know what to do, but I accompanied them back to their homes so that I could see the extent of the damage. I found their complaints were not exaggerated. People were huddled in corners trying to avoid the worst of the downpour, while efforts had been made to protect their belongings, especially their bedding. Among these unfortunates was a young mother who that very day had returned from hospital with her new-born babe.

In an effort to help them, I called in at the local police station, and unfolded my sorry tale to a sympathetic and understanding sergeant. No, he was unaware of emergency services for leaking roofs. If the building was dangerous, he knew what to do. But complaints about leaking roofs arrived with every rain storm, and he, unfortunately, couldn’t help. At that time, I was managing a small jobbing builders’ business, so I opened up the yard, found two tarpaulins, and, with the help of a couple of men from the tenement, spread them over the worst of the rotten slates. And that, for the moment, was as much as I could do.

At the first opportunity, I set about finding out why such conditions were tolerated. The first thing I discovered was that the owners had abandoned the property, because they were unable to meet the maintenance costs. No rents were being collected, and the house agents had no funds to carry out repairs. I also discovered that, throughout Edinburgh, scores of tenements had been deserted, and, in some instances, whole streets of properties had been abandoned by their owners. Meantime, City officials were trying, in a half-hearted way, to trace the owners, and serve notices regarding their duty to keep their houses wind- and water-tight. As many of the owners had left the country, the task of finding them was almost impossible, and, as the Corporation was most unlikely to be compensated for repairs, the unfortunate occupiers of the run-down houses were left marooned. The number of new houses available was insufficient to have them re-housed immediately, so their only remaining hope was through the Council’s house letting system – providing, of course, they were eligible.

And here was another problem. House letting was not controlled by the Housing Committee, but by the Finance Committee. Over a long period of years, officials of house-letting had devised a scheme, subsequently altered and amended as they saw fit, and approved, I suspect, without argument, from the Finance Committee. The end result was a method whereby points were awarded under various headings – health, homelessness, size of family, waiting time – but not the condition of your present abode. Under health, the only points to be gained were if any member of the household suffered from pulmonary T.B.. Heart conditions earned nothing, and the same applied to the limbless, or people confined to their home for whatever reason. Fortunately, a cure was found for T.B., and then heart conditions became a priority for rehousing ( and, incidentally, it’s rather sad that the scourge of T.B. has arrived again in our midst!). Sizes of families presented problems, because ages of children determined pointage, and a child only qualified for a full point after its tenth birthday. Waiting time carried little benefit, and was of value only when added to other points acquired. Many people had been waiting since before the war to secure a home.

Copyright: Pat Rogan

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