From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes


This is the final part of Pat Rogan’s speech about the clearance of Edinburgh’s slums. In this section, Pat concentrates on the challenges faced by the Council in finding the land to build new houses and getting a massive development programme into gear. In doing so, he gives some interesting insights into the decisions taken: like the demolition of prefabs (which happened in the Calders) and the almost complete absence of facilities in many of the new schemes – a problem which afflicted Wester Hailes in its early years. The final paragraph, which talks about the housing problems caused by a previous recession, could, unfortunately, be just as easily applied to the situation faced by many people today.

… So, at long last, the removal of the slums was underway. At the same time, action was now being taken to close down unfit houses, and grant, where necessary, overcrowding certificates on a more liberal scale. I discovered at this time that approximately 1,200 houses were available every year, through deaths, moonlights or evictions, but that the bulk of these houses remained empty for long periods because of slowness in preparing them for letting. These obstructions were soon removed, and welcome additional houses were now available.

Progress – but now we were faced with a shortage of building land. This had been anticipated, and some years earlier a number of high flats had been built to alleviate the difficulty. But the problem remained, so our thoughts turned to invading the Green Belt. Private builders, also hunting for building land, hoped that we would give a lead, but the opposition was too powerful and would have caused delays, which we couldn’t afford.

At this time – 1962 – I was made Chairman of the Housing Committee. The Council was beset by political stalemate; three Liberal and two SNP councillors held the balance, and – no doubt to stop my perpetual complaints! – the Progressives didn’t oppose me. The pressing need for land was still with us, and my first task was to tackle this question. In the immediate postwar years, Edinburgh had erected 4,000 prefabs – the largest number of any city in Scotland – and these houses were occupying valuable land, at a very low density. It was estimated that, by removing them, we could build 10,000 houses on the site made available.

The first hurdle was to get Government permission, because these houses were intended to last at least 20 years, and there were still a few years to go. However, it was discovered that the aluminium floor joists were showing signs of fatigue, so approval was granted. Opposition from the prefab tenants was another matter. They were very happy in their homes, and, if a brick skin could have been built around the exterior, then they could have stayed forever. But I refused to countenance any delay, and set in motion a system whereby we appointed contractors to remove the prefabs, and design and build their replacements. Understandably, this did not please some architects, but the need for houses was great, and the reward was a production of houses never before achieved in Edinburgh.

Dwellings under contract soared from 700 in 1961 to 2,700 by 1962, and two years later, before I demitted office, the number of houses under construction, contracted for, or tendered for, amounted to 3,617. The very worst of the slums had been demolished, and a programme was in place to deal with the remainder. Today, Edinburgh is free from the awful, disgraceful slums that existed 40 years ago.

Edinburgh being a very old city, and tourism being a main industry, it was vital that many of our old properties be retained, repaired or rebuilt. Although, at times, I found myself in conflict with conservationists over slum clearances, many buildings, especially in the Royal Mile, were saved from demolition. Unfortunately, the salvage operation should have been started many years earlier. But in the Canongate and Leith, we have many families settled in rehabilitated buildings, that are a great credit to Edinburgh.

In retrospect, many improvements could have been made on the housing crusade of thirty years ago. Unfortunately, wholesale developments were not controlled entirely by the Housing Committee. In preparing a large scheme, land had to be allocated for a school, but, time and time again, and years later, the land was not used. Requests to include libraries, community centres, and recreation facilities were never received from those committees, and provision of shops – the responsibility of the Finance Committee – was usually left to the good sense and judgement of the City Architect. This meant that many new housing estates were deprived, at the beginning, of amentities that would have made life more comfortable. It was my view then, and now, that in these matters a co-ordinator should be employed, so that all aspects of a new development can be considered well beforehand. But, then, are we ever again likely to see the building of large-scale municipal housing projects?

Last week, to complete these notes, I went up to the City Chambers in Edinburgh, and had a talk with the Depute Convener of Housing of Edinburgh District Council. I learned that the waiting list is now no less than 25,000, about half of that number being homeless. When I left office as Housing Chairman in 1965, the waiting list had been reduced to 6,000, but that number’s back up to 25,000! In discussing multi-storey blocks it appears that the public are still divided. Some love them, some loathe them. At present, there are 72 multi-storey blocks in Edinburgh. Seventeen are due for demolition, leaving 55, with 4,500 flats. But the most interesting thing that came out of our discussion was this. The District Council plan, for the next five years, has a paragraph headed: “Acquisition of Land and New Building”. It reads:

The District Council owns sites which have potential to be developed to meet housing need. At present, however, the Housing Department lacks the capital finance to embark on its new building programme. It also has to consider the “Right to Buy” implications of any new building scheme, as tenants will be able to purchase their homes at full discount after five years, leaving the Council with a large, longstanding loan debt on the houses sold, and with a reduced revenue base to service the debt.”

So, in effect, Edinburgh District Council is barred from embarking on worthwhile projects. Meantime, vast sums are being spent on maintaining existing housing stocks, and rehabilitating private properties – the point that was touched on by Dick Mabon earlier, and where, I may say, the money’s being used to very good advantage.

But, overall, the future certainly looks bleak, as the private sector is also stagnant, mainly because of the present recession. And therefore the whole future, for the homeless, and for those hoping to acquire a new home – especially the young ones coming up, who are looking for new homes of their own – I may say that the future, at least the near future, doesn’t look too bright at all. However, we can but hope that things will improve as they go along – that’s certainly my sentiment! Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.


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