From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

TEN YEARS AFTER

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.

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