From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

The Bad, The Good, and The Ugly

 This article is by Adam Dudley, an experienced architect who specialises in community architecture.  Adam provides a detailed analysis of the aspirations and realities behind the original construction of Wester Hailes.  Based on his personal memories and experiences, Adam reflects both on the building process and some of the wider issues and lessons to be drawn from what happened.        


 THE BAD      

 Sometime around the mid 1960’s, in their initial report to the Planning Department, entitled ‘Wester Hailes – A Plan for a City Suburb’, the master planners and architects for the project, Sir Frank Mears & Partners, estimated that a total of 4,000 houses, consisting generally of 2 and 4 apartments, could be built on the site.  Whilst some ‘higher’ housing blocks were envisaged, the architects had recommended that the housing should generally not exceed 8 or 9 storeys ‘for architectural and social reasons’.  The architect’s plan, their report concluded, ‘embodies modern techniques which can ensure that the future residents may walk and drive in Wester Hailes with safety, convenience, enjoyment, and without conflict. It is hoped that in its final working out and materialisation, it will achieve in 20th century terms some of the civic qualities of former times.’  A schematic plan of the proposals for the Wester Hailes suburb, alongside plans of Edinburgh’s old and new towns were appended to the report to underpin this ‘vision’, complete with artists’ impressions of the proposals.       

The Architect's Vision

By 1975 the suburb of Wester Hailes was complete, although the promenades, courtyards, and lakeside views which had been depicted in the initial design report never did quite materialise.  In reality some 4550 house were built on the site, rather than the 4000 houses originally estimated.  Building contracts for the works had been secured by both competitive tendering and by negotiation, incorporating industrialised building systems.  Of the ten separate housing contracts, five were carried out by J Smart & Co. contractors, one by Hart Builders, and four were design and build contracts.  According to the Council, all of the houses were ‘built to the relevant space standards, they accord with the Building Regulations, and have an economic life of 60 years.’  

 The year is 1980.  I am 23 years old and I am back living with my mother and brothers in Clovenstone whilst in my final year at Heriot Watt University, studying architecture.  For the main project of the year I have chosen to look at the failings of public housing, and to focus on Wester Hailes in particular.     

 The shortcomings of the existing built environment of Wester Hailes had already been well documented in previous studies, such as ‘Wester Hailes speaks for itself’ prepared by residents in 1977, and ‘Wester Hailes – a perspective of community needs’, prepared by the local authority’s Community Research Section.  Given the body of evidence, it seemed therefore appropriate that I should consult the master planners and architects of Wester Hailes directly to see if they could provide some special insight into why their collective vision might have failed.     

An interview with Mr Jimerson of Sir Frank Mears & Partners was duly arranged, during which I recorded the architect’s account of the various difficulties which impacted on the final design.  From my notes taken at the time, the following explanations were given:      

  • The scheme suffered generally as a result of poor communication between the individual committees (Housing, Highways, Recreation, Education, Finance, etc).  Moreover, the joint committee that existed had no executive powers.  Political differences within and between the individual committees reduced the cohesion of the joint committee.  It was suggested that a ‘New Town Committee’, or a temporary local authority, with an overall budget, might have helped overcome some of these problems.  
  • As a condition for developing this green belt site, very high densities had been stipulated by the Secretary of State (at 100 persons per net residential acre).  The required parking provision was similarly high, with one space per household, plus visitor parking.  The architects had suggested that some of the car parking space could be temporarily grassed over until such time that the demand increased (as Wester Hailes improved economically) so that the grassed areas could be converted for parking.  However the Housing Committee was ill-disposed to agree to this on the grounds that the car parking subsidy had to be applied for from the outset, and not at a later date as demand arose.  It was estimated that the cost for converting the proposed grassed areas for parking would be in the order of £3 million, and on the basis of this the parking provision proceeded as stipulated.
  • The topography and orientation of the site created specific design problems. The gradient of the site, which was as steep as 1 in 12 in places, meant that roads with a maximum permissible gradient of 1 in 30, for buses, took up almost 3 times of the nominal area generally required.  The site was north facing, limiting the available sunlight, and curtailing vegetation growth.  There were also specific problems of high wind. 
  • Economic considerations also impacted on the available sites for housing, with the better sites creamed off for the schools, where the flat sites were necessary for the Clasp system of construction which had been selected, and also for playing fields.  Similarly, the developers for the shopping centre, Rank City Wall, had insisted on a prime site as a condition for development.  Prior to the shopping centre development (which did not open until Oct. 1974) the architects had proposed temporary shopping facilities with subsidies, to compensate for the irregular trading until permanent services had been established.  This had been rejected on the grounds that the local authority could not be seen to be favouring certain traders, and that the ‘temporary’ tenants of these shops would be at an unfair advantage in the future.  A proposal for two main shopping centres instead of one was also put forward, but this was also rejected on the grounds that this might create unfair competition! 
  • In the final analysis, the awkwardness of the site, the economic restrictions, and the political/commercial manoeuvring, meant that the housing was ultimately given the worst sites.

The change in culture which confronted the new inhabitants of Wester Hailes was extreme.  Many were from the old Tollcross area, which had developed its own means of subsistence, with an abundance of pawn/second-hand clothes shops, low-priced commercial outlets, etc. It was now left to the new community to recreate this culture in Wester Hailes. 
 A comparison was made with Musselburgh, which had a similar population, but which had had 200 years to develop!       

At the end of the interview my notes were given the title ‘Wester Hailes – The Architects’ Impotence’.  But this was the profession that I was following for myself, and I simply didn’t buy it. Whilst there had clearly been challenges with the design brief, the site, and with the procurement process, I didn’t accept that there was certain inevitability with the outcome of the development, as had been implied.  My own view was that the whole design process could have been approached differently and that this could have resulted in better homes and neighbourhoods.   But the failings and shortcomings the of Wester Hailes development were not simply the stuff for intellectual analysis or posturing.  These were for real, and were directly affecting the everyday lives of people in Wester Hailes.  The structural faults, falling harling, loose roof tiles, leaking balconies, damp penetration, poor sound insulation, and localised flooding were there for the world to see, and for the tenants to live with. These were the result of poor design, the substitution of cheaper building materials for those originally specified (a common trait in Design and Build projects at the time) a low standard of workmanship, aided and abetted by poor on-site supervision.      

In addition to the defective building fabric, the lack of social and community facilities was taking its toll on a community which already suffered unemployment levels at almost double that of the rate for Edinburgh at the beginning of 1981 (17.9% as opposed to 9.7%), with one in every  four 16-24 year olds out of work.  In a later report published in 1982 by Dr. Sarah Boyle, entitled Mental Health and The Community, it was estimated that one-quarter of the people in Wester Hailes may be suffering from varying degrees of mental illness, showing ‘a whole spectrum of disturbance of mood and feeling’.      

The reality of Wester Hailes had very little in common with the ‘civic qualities of former times’ which had been alluded to in the architect’s original submission to the Planning Department.      


The survey carried out in 1977 (Wester Hailes speaks for itself) had also made the comparison with Musselburgh, and had shown the dire disparity between each of the communities in the social and community facilities which each offered.  Musselburgh, for example boasted 51 food shops where Wester Hailes had only 9, and had 16 social clubs and 27 restaurants, cafes and pubs serving the community, where Wester Hailes had none, apart from the Hotel.  Wester Hailes didn’t even have a Police Station, or Health Centre, or Social Work Department, and there was very little on offer for young children or teenagers.

 In response to the complete absence of facilities, plans were put in place by local activists at the end of 1977 to build a community base (the embryonic Community Workshop) alongside the ‘Venchie’ adventure playground in Hailesland Place, which had been created by some of the tenants from Murrayburn.  The Community Workshop was to be wholly owned by the people of Wester Hailes and be managed by a locally based committee, comprising a member from each of the tenant groups, a non-voting observer from the Social and Community Programme, and the Area Co-ordinator (for the Social and Community Development programmed funded by Lothian Region) also with no voting rights. By the summer of 1978 the Community Workshop was up and running, complete with a fully operational cafe, the Café Venchie.  The community newspaper, the ‘Sentinel’, which first came into being in 1977, operating from a community flat in Murrayburn, was given permanent staff accommodation, and other office space was given over to a solicitor (Citizens Advice Bureau) and the Area Co-ordinator. 

 The Community Workshop was very much the start of a grass-roots movement to establish similar bases in each of the individual areas of Wester Hailes. 


huts under construction


Successful applications to the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) for a Youth Opportunities Programme (YOP) were followed by an application for an Urban Aid grant, and by the end of 1979 had created various full-time posts to help expand the community development (Resource officer, information officer, community workers, clerical staff, etc.) in addition to the Area Co-ordinators post, which was still directly funded by Lothian Region. 

 The option of using some of the vacant housing stock for community use had been previously tested, with some success, but was finally abandoned by early 1980, as a result of local government bureaucracy.  And so it was, in the face of the council’s inability or unwillingness to provide the much-needed social facilities, that the local communities set about establishing their own bases – or ‘huts’ as they became known. However, whilst the Urban Aid Grant was in place to meet the running costs, there was very little funding available for the actual building costs.  What was available from the Scottish Development Agency was nowhere near the level of funding required for purpose-built community bases, and it was this grim reality that gave birth to the process of re-cycling disused pre-fabricated classroom units for providing a community base in each area.

 By the end of 1980 the community ‘hut’ at Westburn was nearing completion, and Park & Drive were awaiting the removal of asbestos from their prospective base.  Murrayburn had their sights set on a redundant telecom hut in Fountainbridge, and Dumbryden had negotiated the use of two unused classrooms in the local primary school. Clovenstone, Hailesland, and Calders, either had some form of community base or had plans underway.  By early 1981, Wester Hailes Community Enterprises Ltd. had been set up (through the MSC) to provide local employment, with its building squads active on the community bases, and with ambitions to develop other community facilities, such as a hairdresser and launderette. 


Park and Drive foundation and structure

The Wester Hailes Urban Regeneration Programme Advisory Committee (WHURPAC) had been set up at the beginning of 1980 and had helped co-ordinate a campaign throughout 1981 to highlight the housing defects, which had, in turn, led to the independent survey by the MacData research unit.  When Edinburgh District Council however refused to allow tenant participation in this survey, the Sentinel conducted its own housing investigation (Oct 1981 – Feb 1982).  Local democracy was expanding and in 1981 the Wester Hailes Representative Council came into being, to help represent the wider interests in Wester Hailes.  It was to act as ‘a liaison group for all groups in Wester Hailes and to provide a forum for discussion’.  Its stated aims were ‘to encourage and stimulate local residents in Wester Hailes, enabling them to create a caring, humane and independent community’. 

 Before long, a wide range of interest groups were being represented, from various tenants groups, to unemployed workers, parents groups, handicapped children supports, adventure playgrounds, citizens advice, and so on.

 Meanwhile, back in the comfortable, purpose-built surroundings of university, I had elected to challenge the architect’s ‘impotence’, and had set about ‘re-designing’ Wester Hailes, or rather part of it (Clovenstone).  As a starting point I had compiled a questionnaire for circulating to a 10% sample of the Wester Hailes residents, and I approached Gus Macfadyen, Editor of Sentinel, to see whether this might be distributed with the newspaper.  Without going into the detail of the ‘negotiations’ which ensued, I promptly found myself preparing drawings for a new community base at Park & Drive, and I ended my academic year at university by taking up employment as a ‘community architect’ in Wester Hailes, funded under the Manpower Services Commission Scheme.  As a footnote, I did indeed ‘re-design‘ Clovenstone, albeit as an academic exercise, and managed to convince myself that architects could be more ‘fertile’ in their thinking!

 Based at the Community Workshop, with fellow ‘community architect’ Andy Jack, working directly with the ‘community’ and home-grown building squads proved to be a very steep learning curve from day one.  Any romantic pre-conceptions which I might have had about the role of a ‘community architect’ were immediately laid to rest.  It would be fair to say that the building workers, most of whom were teenagers employed under the Youth Opportunity Programme did not immediately take to my presence. My ‘credentials’ as a ‘local boy’ carried no currency.  Clovenstone was generally perceived as the posh end of Wester Hailes, besides which I had, by then, moved out of the family home and was now flat sharing in Morningside!  The truth was that we were all ‘finding our feet’, and notwithstanding the inevitable ‘face-offs’ the humanity, mediated through the humour, prevailed, and a real sense of teamwork developed.  Jack McNeil, the manager of Wester Hailes Community Enterprises Ltd (the local building company set up under the Community Enterprise Programme) was a central figure.  Jack had a genuine passion for the community, and everyone loved and respected him.  For Jack, the ‘process’ of carrying out each building project was every bit as important as the end results.  It was always about ‘bringing people on’, especially those in greatest need. 

 This was the early 1980’s with inner city riots very much in the news, and Wester Hailes had long been designated as an area of multiple deprivation.  Against this backdrop, many community projects were successfully built.   We all learnt ‘on the job’ as an integrated team, comprising a works foreman, squad supervisors, clerical staff, and a ratio of 1 tradesman to 8/9 labourers. 

Mad Max Adventure Playground structures

‘We collectively created safe and functional community buildings, and the pinnacle of our achievement was undoubtedly the community workshop complex, which included a café, bar and social club, hairdressers, thrift shop, and various offices.  The ‘architecture’ may have had a rather impoverished aesthetic, resulting from the second-hand, recycled building materials and the limited building skills available, but these buildings, alongside the ‘Mad Max’ playground structures appearing throughout Wester Hailes, were very much ‘for the people by the people’. 

In an attempt to ‘spread the word’ I pitched for a ‘workshop’ at my former university, entitled ‘Master Builders Of A Different Class’, and in the introduction to my ‘programme’, the community activists of  Wester Hailes were introduced as:

 Neither liberal do-gooders nor highly paid professionals, but ‘ordinary’ people with some community commitment, working largely on a voluntary basis.  Their role is to provide a variety of skills and services, with the aim of encouraging people to get involved, and so create a real sense of community.  Thus, in terms of building work, this unfinished scheme (of Wester Hailes) is supplemented by a different kind of architecture altogether.  Namely custom-built playground structures and prefabricated classroom units.  And each construction engenders social activity of one form or another.  Dead, empty spaces become adventure playgrounds, turning desolation into hyper-activity.  Wooden huts become social clubs, giving a place of identity to an estranged youth, and classroom units become community bases, cafes, theatre workshops, and hairdressers.

Neighbourhood Entertainment

This was just one of the dozens of ‘topics’ put forward by individual architects/groups for the annual programme of ‘Winter Schools’ throughout the Architectural Schools in Scotland with the selected workshops lasting for a period of one week.  Unfortunately, an insufficient number of my fellow trainee architects failed to exercise their social conscience. My bid duly failed due to lack of support, and that was the end of that! My employment as community architect came to a premature end when it became clear (contrary to previous assurances) that my practice experience at Wester Hailes would not, after all, be recognised by the RIBA for the purpose of completing my architectural education to become a fully qualified architect.  A part-time placement with a ‘conventional’ architects practice soon followed, leading to full-time employment, and full qualification. 

 This was not however the end of my involvement in community projects in Wester Hailes.  By 1986 I had set up in private practice for myself and had already carried out a number of small projects at the community workshop.  Early in 1987 I was asked to provide architectural services in connection with a new youth base which, in traditional fashion, was to be constructed from recycled prefabricated classroom units and built largely by unskilled labour under a Manpower Services Commission scheme.  This was a major project, bigger than anything previously undertaken by the community organisation, and was born out of the growing awareness in the community that something needed to be done to help the increasing number of disenfranchised and alienated youth in Wester Hailes.  This was to become the ‘Woods Youth Base’, and as explained in the design report submitted with the Planning Application:

The core function of the Youth Base is as an alternative education centre, concentrating on stimulating and teaching kids who find it difficult to conform to conventional education.  To broaden the scope and possibilities of the building and to combat the notion of a centre for ‘bad’ children’, local involvement will be encouraged to organise and participate in a range of activities to be associated with the Youth Base.  These will include hairdressing, joinery, screen printing, photography, music, video and film making.

 The philosophy of youth training and community involvement in the building is incorporated in the design and construction programme.  Starting with four transportable classroom units on the site, these will be extended and linked in a creative way to provide the range of spaces and facilities, including café, main hall, craft workshops, and counselling rooms.  The construction process will be deliberately labour intensive, using M.S.C. labour, guided and trained by a handful of qualified trades people.  Thus participation in the building work will provide local employment, as well as training, in a variety of construction skills, and generate interest, involvement, enthusiasm and care in their community Youth Base.

Plans for proposed Woods Youth Base

NB: Click on the pictures to see them at a larger size.  If you then hold the pointer over the image, you’ll see a magnifying glass icon. Click again and the picture will become larger.

proposed Woods Centre entrance

proposed Woods Centre common room

From a core group of community activists, 6,000 questionnaires had been delivered around Wester Hailes to invite residents to a public meeting about the project.  Whilst the management committee of the project included representatives from the Education Department, Social Work, and Community Education, Wester Hailes residents were to make up the majority of the committee.  When complete, the base was to be run by volunteers, supported by full time/part time Youth Workers, Social Workers, a co-ordinator and deputy co-ordinator, a secretary, kitchen staff, and cleaners.   Three teachers were also to be employed to run a small ‘school’ within the base. Although this was very much a ‘partnership’ project involving various local authority departments, the commitment and momentum was firmly community based.  Interest in the project was gained from far afield, with letters of support coming from the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Fulham, and Manchester United football teams (signed by all of the managers, including Alex Ferguson, no less!)

letter from Alex Ferguson

This very ambitious project comprised four classroom units placed so that they created two very large common rooms between them.  The massive roof trusses over the common rooms, new roofs over the classroom units, and expansive brick gables were all designed and detailed so that they could be built on site using a combination of skilled and unskilled labour.  The building team was managed by Roly Wilson, with modest building experience, but tremendous communication skills.  As with all previous projects, it was a case of learning on the job.  Given the scale of the funding and the responsibility placed on all parties for ensuring the quality and performance of the building, the information put together for the build was immense.  For our part, in addition to the traditional construction drawings and specification, this included guidance notes/instructions and sketches on every aspect of the works, from preparing the site, setting out the works, mixing concrete, installing reinforcements, laying bricks, and so on.  Looking back, this was a major undertaking, involving some very sophisticated building operations, such as the construction of a series of drop-manholes to connect the foul drainage to that of the adjacent school (WHEC.) 
  As the project started to take shape, both as an idea, and then as a real building on site, so did the confidence and ambitions of other community groups.  By the beginning of 1988, under a new appointment working for a different community group, we had secured Planning Consent for a new sports pavilion/club premises at Clovenstone, comprising a licensed club house with changing rooms, kitchen, and ancillary facilities, a flood lit football pitch and stand, a bowling green, and a new play area.  This time however, instead of recycling prefabricated classroom units, this project was to be a complete new-built, bespoke building project.

It all seemed too good to be true, and, of course, is soon proved to be the case!  As the funding was squeezed and the bureaucracy took hold, these 2 projects began to falter.  No sooner had the first foundations been laid when Instructions were received to, literally, ‘halve’ the size of the Woods Youth Base.  A major re-design produced Youth Base ‘Mark 2’, and almost all of the design ‘features’ once envisaged soon disappeared, as further funding pressures were brought to bear.  As our own input and control became increasingly marginalised, other, ‘on-site’ design changes altered the original project beyond all recognition.  The final ‘blow’, some years on, was delivered with a rather ‘alien’ extension to the rear of this truncated (halved) building by the Social Work Department.  As for the Clovenstone project, this was never to go beyond the first ‘hurdle’ (ie. beyond Planning Consent) as neither the funding nor the commitment by the local authority was there.

THE UGLY (face of the ‘system’)

The Woods Youth Base that never was

Hailed as ‘prefab pioneers’ we community architects in Wester Hailes had enjoyed our cameo in the Architects Journal, which, in October 1982, reported that

 ‘Community architecture is not confined to inner city areas where local groups have taken advantage of the resources of cheap vacant buildings. Social deprivation can be as serious in peripheral council estates, and here there are no vacant buildings that can easily be brought into use. Wester Hailes, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, is a striking example of a newly built neighbourhood where local people, with the help of sympathetic architects, have begun to build much needed facilities’.  

 The article pointed out that ‘Almost from the start Wester Hailes was designated an area of multiply deprivation and was included in the local authorities Social Community and Development Programme (SCPD)’. This was funded by the EEC, and although this initiative failed and was largely wound up by 1978, it did have a number of positive spin-offs, not least being the appointment of the ‘local coordinator’, Lawrence Demarco, who continued in the post specifically to assist local community and voluntary groups. The Architects Journal put much of the success in the community projects which followed down to Lawrence Demarco’s ‘Billy Connelly’ style of community work’.

By 1982 the Community Workshop was collectively employing up to 200 people on the Youth Opportunity Programme (YOP), Community Enterprise Programme (CEP), Urban Aid, and EEC funded projects. The generous supply of obsolete prefabricated classroom units and small grants from the Scottish Development Agency (SDA) and Urban Aid provided the building team of some 60 people with building materials for various community buildings. The community were succeeding where the council had failed. According to Lawrence Demarco, community bases were being built within a 6 month period of the initial request, and regularly at no cost whatsoever to the council. These were however meant to be temporary buildings, generally built on ground owned by the various council departments, with only temporary leases and temporary Planning Consents, on the premise that they would, in the future, be replaced with permanent ‘bricks and mortar’.  

 There was no denying the successes which the local community had brought about themselves in building the infrastructure of facilities which made it possible to improve on their lives in Wester Hailes. The reality however, was that the projects relied heavily on scraps of funding from a number of sources, all of which were vulnerable.  As the article in the Architect’s Journal concluded ‘Take away the Social Services Site, cut the funds for a key worker, deny the community its own architects, and the rug will be pulled from under so much voluntary effort’.   It was all very much a ‘balancing act’ for those trying to secure the funding for a project.  The determination and commitment was rooted in a critique of the state’s (local and central) inability to provide, yet these were the very same agencies which were have to be approached for the funding and resources. 

 The experience of Wester Hailes was being repeated throughout the country, with the same pattern of funding from the same sources.  Typically, a redundant or temporary building was being acquired at either low, or no cost (with financial assistance from the local authority, as necessary).  Urban Aid was paying for the building materials, and sometimes the fees, and the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) was paying for the building labour.  Any shortfall in project funding had to come from private sources or from fund raising.

 Confronted by the inner city riots in 1981, the Conservative Government, otherwise committed to cutting public expenditure, had increased its traditional urban programme allocation from £16.5 million in 1981-82 to 24.6 million in 1982-83, with a substantial increase going to the voluntary sector.  This was surely in recognition of their effectiveness in tackling inner city problems of deprivation and unemployment.  By July 1982 however, a shift in political emphasis was being detected, with concerns being raised about the dependence on state finance by inner city projects.  The solution, according to Tom King, the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services, was to ‘get the voluntary sector moving’, pointing out that

 ‘public money will never do all the jobs because there is such a massive amount to be done.  The Government will do what it can, but its skill is to maximise gearing with other funds to support projects’. 

 Projects could no longer be expected to receive a continual injection of public money.  The new policy was to ‘cut out waste’ and to ‘encourage’ projects to be self financing.  Projects obtaining funding under urban programme schemes were now to be ‘given time limits to stop them from running on and on’.  It was the beginning of the end of an era. 

Woods Centre 2009

By the end of the 1980’s the high rise blocks in Westburn exemplified the classic problems of inner city urban decay, with chronic building failure and under investment in the surroundings.  Lettings were falling as people left and others refused to move in. The buildings which were meant to have a 60 year life ultimately managed to survive only 20 years, and were duly demolished when it became clear that refurbishment was not a sustainable option (shown in red on the site plan below).  Other buildings were soon to follow suit.  NB: Click on the map to see it at a larger size.  If you then hold the pointer over the image, you’ll see a magnifying glass icon. Click again and the picture will become larger.It is with some irony that the ‘temporary huts’ in the guise of the Community Workshop and the Woods Youth Base still survive, some 30 years and 21 years on, although looking rather worse for wear, and somewhat removed from the utopian vision which I held back in the early 1980’s.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.