From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

Death Of A Dream

YTS Logo

“One of the saddest things about unemployment is the number of young people involved.  These young people with their abundant energy and fresh ideas have much to contribute to society and it is society that must suffer from this present crisis.”

Unemployment amongst young people in the UK continues to be a cause for concern as the country faces difficult economic times and the on-going effects of austerity measures.  However, these words were written 35 years ago by the Chair of the Wester Hailes Youth Opportunity Programme as the WHYOP was launched.  He went on to say

 “Wester Hailes has never been slow to face up to its responsibilities and is proving true to form in this new venture which offers young people an alternative to the dole queue.”

yts traineeWhilst youth training programmes attracted their fair amount of critics, Wester Hailes seemed to find creative ways to provide placements, training and improved community services.  The scheme was able to offer placements for example with the Sentinel, the community café and a recycling project.  From an early stage the project took a holistic approach, recognising that some young people needed a broader range of training including life skills to become fully equipped for work.  This inevitably raised the project’s costs but enabled the scheme to have a more positive and permanent impact for the young people involved. Over its lifetime it had a 95% success rate with its trainees and was regarded as one of the most successful projects of its kind.

When the Youth Opportunity Programme was replaced by the Youth Training 10th birthdayScheme, the programme in Wester Hailes was adapted to meet the new requirements. In 1988, the Sentinel reported on 10 years of the Wester Hailes YTS.  During that time nearly 400 young people had benefited from being involved.  It was also one of the longest running voluntary YTS group in the country.  It also specialised in working with young people who found it difficult to access mainstream training, providing additional support and training to ensure they could take up training opportunities.  You can read more about their success story here.

The project got to a stage when it really needed new premises and in 1990, the Sentinel reported on the on-going tussle with the Wester Hailes Partnership over the promised funding that had yet to materialise.  When Malcom Rifkind visited the YTS, the manager took the opportunity to raise the issue with him, with the matter being reported in the paper.

Wester Hailes young people demonstrating against the YTS closureIn 1992, the scheme faced its biggest challenge, which sadly proved to be its last.  The main funding came from Lothian and Edinburgh Enterprise Ltd.  When the government made cuts to their funding, those cuts were passed on making the YTS unsustainable.  In April 1992 it was announced that the YTS would close.  The Sentinel paid tribute to all the scheme’s achievements and pointed out the many ways that the wider community had benefited from the support and activities of the YTS trainees.

last yts trainees


The Greening of Hailes

Wester Hailes

Early photos of Wester Hailes are dominated by the high rise blocks separated by wide seas of concrete and tarmac.  The green spaces that were included were certainly spacious but were not usable public space and sometimes seemed barren and arbitrary in design.   Efforts to keep pedestrians away from traffic greening partnership photoswithout consulting on where residents actually needed pedestrian routes simply resulted in people using the grass verges or crossing the roads at sometimes dangerous points rather than following official paths.

Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at the work and legacy of the Wester Hailes Partnership Group which oversaw an ambitious programme of development for the area.  Part of its strategy included improving local green spaces and addressing a number of environmental issues affecting the area including pedestrian routes, roadside footpaths and increasing the number of trees and plants in the area.

In 1990 the Sentinel devoted a double page spread to the Greenway Improvement Scheme.  Forming the pedestrian “backbone” of Wester Hailes, it  was supposed to be a 20th century Royal Mile for the area, linking housing with local facilities and services.  But lack of investment and minimal maintenance had led to the route being underused due to concerns about safety.  Public consultation had shown that the top priorities for improvement were lighting, repaving and new planting.  Plans for upgrading the route included new junctions and focal points as well as redesigning the paths.

This scheme was one of a number of environmental projects that were aimed at improving the area in particular through creating more distinctive accessible green spaces that linked neighbourhoods rather than separated them.  The Wester Hailes Land Use Unit reported on progress in the 1992 Representative Council Annual Report.  Environmental improvements included roadside and boundary planting aimed at “greening” Wester Hailes and developing a plan for roadside footpaths.  Over the next couple of years an extensive planting programme was put into action resulting in thousands of additional plants and trees for the area.

greening column picThe Land Use Unit also developed a proposal to employ an Urban Environmental Ranger.  This proposal was submitted to the Urban Aid panel with the application being successful.  This project was the first of its kind with the Ranger engaged in a variety of projects with local children and young people.  The Ranger worked with schools and neighbourhood councils encouraging local residents to become involved in litter picking, planting and other environmentally focused projects.  A Wildlife Club for children was also established for children to learn more about the environment through games and activities.  A regular column Environmental Outlook written by the Ranger featured in the Sentinel for several years during the 1990s.

wildlife club

Is Wester Hailes now greener than it was?  With Spring finally arriving, now would be a good time for residents to judge for themselves.  Last year the increased use of tarmac in the area was raised at a Wester Hailes Community Council meeting with concern being expressed that trees and shrubs are being cut back or removed and replaced by areas of tarmac as have some areas of grassland.  The issue is not clear cut however, with some residents indicating that they preferred this to overgrown shrubs and the associated issues such as rubbish and blocked paths.  Yet with so much work and investment over the years being put into developing Wester Hailes’ green space it seems a shame that this might now be in danger of being reduced.  Last year the City of Edinburgh Council published a report, the first of its kind in Scotland that estimated the value of Edinburgh’s trees in absorbing carbon dioxide, thus reducing pollution.  The 600,000 trees across the city are estimated to have an economic value in removing airborne pollution of around £2.3 million.  Announcing the report, Paul Wheelhouse, the Scottish Government’s Environment & Climate Change Minister commented

“Urban trees, together with community woods, parks and green spaces are the lungs of our Capital.”

The trees planted back in the early 1990s in Wester Hailes are playing their part in reducing pollution.  Hopefully, they will be able to carry on this role for a long time yet as well as bringing a wealth of other environmental benefits to the community.  In 1993 the Environment Outlook column explained that many of the newly planted trees were native Scottish species, trees that would have been growing in the area if the land had not been cleared.  As shown below, the column gave information about the trees and some of the folklore associated with them.

greening column  trees

Political Legacies

With the acres of footage and newsprint currently documenting the life and sentinel scoops 4times of a certain ex-prime minister, it seemed fitting to check whether the Sentinel with its fantastic ability of scooping interviews with major politicians had ever come face to face with Mrs Margaret Thatcher.  It appears though that the picture shown here on the front page from September 1988 was not the result of an interview or encounter.  Whilst efforts were made, the Sentinel reported in its 100th edition that she had declined the invitation, with the indication that she confined interviews almost entirely to “foreign newspapers”.

Wester Hailes is only 43 years old as a community and so much of its early and formative history is inevitably tied up with Mrs Thatcher’s ideology and her government’s policies during 1979-1990.  In October last year we looked at the results of the Fowler review brought in during Mrs Thatcher’s leadership in 1986, and what the changes in the welfare reform system would mean to Wester Hailes when implemented.  Whilst many of the government’s policies were well supported by some in society nationally, the effects in areas like Wester Hailes could be seen Youth Programme Soup Kitchenacross the front pages of the Sentinel as the local situation was documented over the months and years.  In April 1987 for example, the Sentinel led with the headline “Breadline Britain”, featuring several stories that demonstrated the rise in poverty within Wester Hailes.

Despite Mrs Thatcher’s reluctance to speak to a community newspaper, other politicians of the day were not so reticent and the Sentinel carried interviews with key national politicians including Neil Kinnock, David Steel, Norman Tebbit,  Tony Benn, George Younger and David Owen.  This editorial policy meant that local residents could read the views of national decision makers and just as importantly, it gave an opportunity to promote a positive view of the Wester Hailes community to people who may only have known about the area otherwise through more sensationalist press headlines.

Whilst we cannot bring you an exclusive Sentinel interview with Mrs Thatcher, we can feature two major politicians who were in parliament throughout her time in office.  It would be fair to say they were at different ends of the political spectrum on most issues but this is probably fitting as whatever everyone’s views are on Mrs Thatcher, she certainly provoked debate.

The first interview is with Tam Dalyell in 1985 who had visited Wester Hailes to give a talk about his views on the Falklands War.  The second interview is with Malcom Rifkind.  Mr Rifkind gave several interviews to the Sentinel over the years.  As we have just finished a series on the Wester Hailes Partnership, the featured interview is during 1988 when news of the new urban renewal plans was being launched.


It was originally intended that the Wester Hailes Partnership would have a lifespan of 10 years, and conclude operations in 1999. However, under the section headed “What Remains To be Done”, the 1997 Partnership report recognised that there was a “considerable regeneration task remaining” and announced that its work would continue on until 2002.

Here we are, just over ten years on from that, a good point at which to assess whether or not the Partnership wrought any fundamental changes to an estate which had struggled from the outset with housing, socioeconomic and environmental problems and to ask to what extent it succeeded in bringing lasting benefits to the lives of the local residents.

The extended 1999 – 2002 programme was to be driven forward under the aegis of a new development strategy entitled “Maintaining the Momentum”. This was published in September 1998 and talked rather grandly of “enhancing and entrenching…the development of innovative, community owned and managed service delivery agencies” while its vision statement identified “economic vibrancy” and “an empowered, active” local community as key objectives.

As has been noted in previous posts in this series, unemployment and the local economy were areas in which the Partnership had struggled to make any significant headway. Nevertheless, the 1997 report was bullish about the future. In particular, it highlighted a new flagship initiative, the Westside Training Agency, which had just been launched to provide training and improve access to employment. It also anticipated further job creation through “a range of commercial and leisure developments” on vacant land at Wester Hailes Park and Drive.

However, even before “Maintaining the Momentum” had been published, the Westside Training Agency had collapsed, after less than six months in existence, due to the discovery of what the Sentinel reported as “financial irregularities”. Also, one of the main achievements trumpeted by the 1997 report, the Greenway Centre, a purpose built leisure and civic centre, survived only until 2003 when it closed because of financial difficulties. The lease of the building was bought over by the Wester Hailes Land & Property Trust who converted it into office space to let.

The commercial developments at the Park and Drive never happened. Various schemes which were mooted never came to fruition. Part of the site was eventually redeveloped for housing while the greater part lay empty and derelict for m0re than 15 years and is only now being partly redeveloped as a Healthy Living Centre. While this is a very welcome development and will provide new, modern facilities to serve the local community, it is also something of a misnomer as the majority of the floorspace will consist of City Council offices occupied by relocated staff and will not create a significant number of new jobs within Wester Hailes itself.

The 1997 report spoke of the the Wester Hailes Rep Council as being “one of the most sophisticated local democratic structures in Britain – from neighbourhood through to estate-wide management”. And yet, by 2002, the final year of the “Maintaining the Momentum” programme, the existence of this lauded institution was being called into question following an independent evaluation which concluded that it had become overly bureaucratic and had lost sight of its original objectives. It celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2007, but only three years later voluntarily dissolved itself following withdrawal of funding the previous year and having had to make all its staff redundant. In addition, as a direct consequence of this, most of the Neighbourhood Councils who made up the grassroots structure of the the Rep Council went out of existence.

The demise of the Sentinel, latterly the West Edinburgh Times, had preceded this in 2008, also as a result of the withdrawal of funding, and after 35 years in existence. That same year, the Tesco store in Dumbryden closed after nearly three decades and relocated to Hermiston Gait despite efforts to get the company to redevelop land adjacent to the Wester Hailes shopping centre (could this be the only recorded case of Tesco actually moving out of an area?). In the context of these losses, it is hard to see “Maintaining the Momentum” as being anything other than a horribly ironic title for the culmination of the Partnership’s 13 year long efforts to transform and revitalise Wester Hailes.

Nor do statistics suggest that anything was achieved in tackling employment issues. Through 2002 to 2008 unemployment remained well above 20% in Wester Hailes (around 30% in Clovenstone and Dumbryden) as against an Edinburgh figure of under 10%. In other words, there was no discernible improvement (in fact, actually an increase) compared to the rate at the start of the Partnership, while the gap between Wester Hailes and the city as a whole had remained as large as ever. Furthermore, since 2004, according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, none of the data zones that make up Wester Hailes have moved out of the worst 15%. The majority remain in the worst 10%, over half in the worst 5% and, in terms of the key indicators used to measure SIMD, employment is the one which has fared the worst.

It cannot be denied that a great deal was achieved in terms of housing and the environment. The vast majority of the multi-storey blocks, containing the worst accommodation, was demolished, transforming the skyline of Wester Hailes. In many cases, these monstrosities were replaced with lower density housing which was much more popular with local people. Hundreds of existing homes were completely refurbished. A greater variety of housing tenure was created and people started moving into the area to buy the new private housing which was on offer. The general environment was improved and Wester Hailes, to this day, remains significantly greener in its physical aspects compared to many similar peripheral estates built after the war. The canal was re-opened after a gap of thirty years, partly thanks to the efforts of the community and the Partnership, and remains another enduring asset.

Nevertheless, huge amounts of money were poured into Wester Hailes during the 1990s – to the extent that it got the nickname “Treasure Island” – and the underlying issues of poverty and deprivation have remained, more or less unchanged, up to the present. Most of the initiatives designed to tackle these problems had little real impact and quickly faded away along with the vision statements, high ambitions and bold promises that characterised the rhetoric which surrounded the Partnership. Wester Hailes is still, as the Partnership proclaimed at the outset, “full of potential” but, sadly, insufficient momentum was generated and maintained across the board and much that made this a special community has been lost along the way.