From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes


This article by Roy McCrone, looks at the formation and development of the first residents’ group to be formed in Wester Hailes.  The Wester Hailes Association of Tenants (WHAT) campaigned on a wide range of issues and their hard work and aspirations for the area created the conditions for a series of initiatives to be developed. 


© Roy McCrone 2010

The initial planning study for Wester Hailes had no doubt as to what mattered most – the quality of life of the residents.  All aspects of the layout and design were to have regard to their safety, convenience and enjoyment.  It talked of finding ways to counterbalance the “demerits of industrialised and repetitive housing” and the necessity of promoting a sense of belonging. 

 Construction of the housing began in January 1967.  Over 4,800 homes were to be provided on 287 acres of land, the largest single building project undertaken in Edinburgh since the creation of the New Town, two hundred years before.  Wester Hailes would be equivalent in population, it was said, to Linlithgow, Rothesay, Crieff and Grantown-on-Spey combined. 

Sentinel December 1978

 On 10th December 1970, a public meeting was held at which the Wester Hailes Association of Tenants – WHAT – was formed.  Issue number one of WHAT’S NEWS later that month spelled out exactly why it had been set up:

 “What’s WHAT all about?  There is a crying need for a variety of things out here.  We’re paying hefty rents & rates & getting very little in return.  A primary school, a shop and lots of houses. That about sums up Wester Hailes. We need a secondary school quickly, we need a community centre, nursery or pre-school facilities for the very young children & their mothers, a club of some kind for our teenagers, more shops, a post office, letter boxes & you name it we have not got it!”

 The massive construction programme continued to plough ahead and was about to reach its height but all was far from right.  The first homes had been occupied no more than three years before, yet dissatisfaction and frustration had plainly been building apace with the housing.

Nearly forty years on, WHAT’s first newsletter retains an immediacy that is striking.  A straightforward no-nonsense approach and calm determination colour every sentence.  The language is down to earth and the message clear: things are not the way they should be, but we – the people of Wester Hailes – can get them sorted.

 The agenda is practical and specific. Any suspicion of ideology or hidden agendas being involved is kicked briskly into touch:

 “What’s behind WHAT?  Someone at the meeting suggested that we might be Communist agitators out to stir things up.  It’s a point of view, I suppose, but it’s a pretty daft one.”

 WHAT has been established by the community, freely and openly, according to democratic principles:

 “A committee was elected from the floor of the hall, with members from the three “areas” in the scheme (Dumbryden, Hailesland & Murrayburn), plus a chairman, secretary & a treasurer.  Their names and addresses are all on the back of this newsletter. Ask them if they regard themselves as Communist agitators…”

 The residents of Wester Hailes have a shared grievance – “We’re paying hefty rents & rates & getting very little in return”.  The Corporation is failing to honour its part of the deal.  At the same time, for any one of them, as individuals, to get a fair hearing from those in authority would simply be impossible:

 “ If you were to go along to the Planning Department of the Corporation to say you thought there should be better facilities in Wester Hailes you wouldn’t get any further than a clerk at the front desk”

 On their own they are insignificant and ineffectual. But there is another option.  The power to demand to be heard can be generated by banding together and speaking with a single, united voice.  It all boils down to a simple and stark equation:

 “Bodies like the Corporation pay more attention to other bodies than they do to individuals. The bigger the body, the better the attention”

 Organising and acting collectively, therefore, is the way to get proper redress. People as individuals may be powerless but together they have the ability to force the Corporation to take notice of them. Once that happens an entirely different power relationship will come into being:

 “…if we get someone along from the Planning Department to a public meeting and there are enough of us there to show him that all of Wester Hailes is behind us, they’ll listen, and they’ll act.”



Sentinel March 1979


 Officialdom can, and will, be brought to account.  At the next public meeting, WHAT’S NEWS tells its readers, “We’re having someone from the Planning Department along.  Possibly the City Architect himself.”  The statement of intent is clear, now that WHAT is on the scene things are going to start moving, and quickly.

 Lack of facilities is not the only issue, basic services need improving and the new committee is already on the case – “We’ve written to the Cleansing Dept about having more regular clean-ups here”.  And it’s not just the Corporation it has in its sights – “We’ll write another letter to the G.P.O. about improving postal facilities”.


The significance with which the committee regards its correspondence can be sensed.  These are no ordinary letters; they are issued by WHAT, the elected mouthpiece of the community of Wester Hailes.  As such, they carry status and weight and should not be ignored.

The clear implication is that the “official channel” of existing political representation is not the way to get results.  Or, perhaps, that avenue has already been explored and found to be less than satisfactory.  Rather, the councillors seem to be viewed in much the same light as officials i.e. part and parcel of the Corporation monolith.

 As with officials, local councillors will be expected to appear before WHAT. Straight away one of them has his card marked:

“As speakers we had Councillor Brian Meek (He’s one of the Councillors for this ward). Councillor George Foulkes was supposed to represent the Labour Party but did not turn up, sending along Trevor Davies, a Labour candidate, instead”. 

 And Councillor Meek, despite his position (or because of it), does not impress the meeting as being the right person to turn to for support and guidance in the future:

 “Jock Henry, the Secretary of the Trades Council, made the best contribution of the evening, and various members of the audience have since said that we must have him back to give us the low down on the rents situation.”

 That single phrase – “the low down on the rents situation” – says a lot.  It tells of uncertainty and suspicion on the part of the people, a belief that they don’t know the true facts, that the full story has somehow been withheld from them, probably to their disadvantage.  It signals a distinct lack of confidence that the Corporation has been, or will be, fair and open with its tenants.

 The existing political structure has not worked for them. In their view, it has left them pretty much in the lurch.  The Corporation has its own agenda and takes decision without reference to what they want.  Now, in order to take up the cudgels on their own behalf, they are in the process of fashioning something new.

 WHAT will seek to be as open and inclusive as it can, no-one is to be left out:

 “There are a lot of pensioners & senior citizens living in the scheme. We’d like to see them at the next meeting to get their points of view about what’s needed.  Teenagers, too. There’s no age limit to membership of WHAT.”

 The focus is entirely on the wishes and needs of the residents, every one of them. It is they who will determine the direction and priorities of WHAT. Don’t be slow in coming forward is the message, don’t be shy.  When he appears before them, the man from the Corporation should hear as full and frank a range of views from the audience as is possible:

 “COME ALONG TO THE MEETING and tell him what you think the scheme needs. After all, you live in it, he doesn’t.”

 This is the democratic principle at its most basic and vibrant.  The community meets, debates and determines, face to face, and the will of that assembly is communicated to those whose job it is to implement decisions.  Representation is rendered superfluous under such a process – officials find themselves recast, literally and directly, in the role of servants of the people.

 Effective communication is the key to making this work.  Decision number one of the committee, WHAT’S NEWS tells us, was to publish a newsletter.  Wester Haileans may, at present, be living in something of an information vacuum but that’s a state of affairs which is going to be remedied:

 “WHAT’S NEWS is designed to reflect & report what’s happening, is not happening or SHOULD be happening in Wester Hailes. You’re the people it will be concerned with. It’s your paper.”

 For the first time people will really know what’s going on.  But, more than that, the intention is to focus attention on where the powers-that-be are falling down on the job – or haven’t yet begun.  Content will be determined by what matters to the community, the stuff that affects daily lives.  If people think it’s important, it’s important.

 “This newsletter is yours. If there’s anything you’d like to mention…let us know”

 This is a community in the process of creating itself.  At bottom, it is about discovering an identity: I am like you – you are like us – we’re all in this together.  Recognition of this fosters unity and a shared purpose.  Collective consciousness becomes the foundation for collective action.

 WHAT is spearheading this and WHAT’S NEWS is the means by which it is endeavouring to galvanise the residents.  Through it, a rallying cry is being broadcast, a recruitment drive launched and a campaign of action coordinated:

 “If you haven’t already been chatted into taking-up membership by the person who sold you this newsletter, come along and join in the meeting on the 7th.”

  WHAT has great ambitions but these are early, crucial days and impetus has to be maintained:

 “WHAT is getting off the ground.  We need the help and support of everyone…”

 The new organisation is seeking to encourage as wide involvement as possible – numbers are a sign of strength and evidence of its legitimacy to speak and act for the community.

 “The more the merrier. The bigger we are, the more we’ll be able to do.”

 The next public meeting will be when the campaign really kicks off.  It is to be a demonstration of the depth of feeling within Wester Hailes, proof that the groundswell of opinion is of a scale that can’t be ignored or easily neutralised.

 WHAT’s objective is to force authority’s hand – to get better amenities “…a good bit quicker than the Corporation planned we should have them.”  A public meeting might be the most immediate way of creating an impact but the committee is also thinking in terms of the long haul.  Straight off, in the opening paragraph, that is made evident:

 “This is the first newsletter to be published by WHAT (The Wester Hailes Association of Tenants).  We hope that there will be many more, and that as things get better financially, the form of the newsletter will improve.”

 However, if WHAT is to be about more than the short term, more than a vehicle to whip up local feeling and get bums on seats at a few meetings, then proper resources will be required – specifically, money and manpower.

 There’s only one place WHAT can turn to for this – the community itself.  People will have to be prepared to stump up their own cash.  WHAT’S NEWS is not being handed out, it is being sold (price 3d).  Anyone living in Wester Hailes, from teenagers to pensioners, can join the Association’s ranks but at a cost: “3/- membership fee (5/- joint membership for couples)”.

 Goodwill and generosity have already got the ball rolling:

 “WHAT has received its first donation – or rather donations. Two ladies have each donated 5/- which means that WHAT is now in funds.”

 Nevertheless, WHAT is not simply expecting to rely on subsidies from those it is endeavouring to represent.  A plan has been drawn up, and is about to be implemented, to generate income. In order to do so, people will be asked to give of their time as well as their money:

 “We’re going to organise a regular paper collection to supplement WHAT’s funds.  The money we get from the sales of paper will enable us to pay for other things.  Volunteers are urgently needed to help in this.  It’ll take maybe one night a fortnight.”

 If the Association is going to survive, if it is going to put down proper roots and become an effective force in the long term, it has to have, not just supporters, but enthused and committed workers.  Producing a regular newsletter, selling it on the street and collecting enough paper from homes throughout Wester Hailes to maintain a significant income stream, will require hard graft, week in, week out.

 “Volunteers of any age or size will be welcome.”

 The intention is to have the paper collection underway very soon “probably just after the New Year” and the wider community has to be convinced to play its part as well:

 “So, save all the wrapping from those presents! Paper of any kind will be acceptable.”

 WHAT’s goal is to get everyone pulling together: selling newsletters, buying them, saving paper, collecting paper – self-reliance is at its core.  And, the extent to which it can make a success of this will produce a corresponding benefit in terms of freedom of action.  Beholden to no-one, WHAT will have the means to act as it sees fit to pursue its own ends.

The Wester Hailes Association of Tenants faced an early attempt to limit its independence. In February 1971, the Edinburgh Evening News reported on a “lively” public meeting at which a proposal that it should become a community association was discussed and rejected by members.  According to WHAT’s Chairman, Hector Campbell:

 “We decided that until such times as we acquire a community centre, no benefits would be obtained from being a community association.  The feeling of the meeting was that we will only be able to get a community centre by our own efforts and this will be one of the main objects of our future programme.”

 A further reason for this rejection, according to the Evening News, was because WHAT’s members “did not want to be out-numbered by Corporation nominees on the administrative committee”.  The Association’s go-it-alone philosophy had been challenged, openly debated and then reaffirmed. Authority was to be kept at arm’s length and independence safeguarded.  

 The article also reported that the waste paper collection project had been launched and hopes were high:

 “Collection organiser Tommy Robertson has been researching the subject and has discovered that Penicuik Town Council collected £204 last month from waste paper, and Bonnyrigg and Lasswade made even more.”

  Wester Hailes had more houses than any of these places so “prospects were bright”, it said (quoting the second issue of WHAT’S NEWS) that a steady income could be realised.

  In March 1973 the Evening News carried a two day special investigative report into Wester Hailes. On day one, under the twin headline  “What Wester Hailes Needs Urgently Is Community Spirit And A Feeling Of Belonging” and “They’re Working Together For Their Identity”, the controversy that had already attached itself to the place was noted:

 “…Wester Hailes, Edinburgh Corporation’s latest council housing estate described variously as “a big mistake,” “Little Tibet” and “exclusively a success story.”

 And its distinctively unprepossessing appearance briefly sketched:

 “…flats which viewed downhill looked like the Dalai Lama’s residence…blocks of square rigged flats that make Portobello Power Station look like the ideal home.”

 But the majority of the article was about WHAT, the efforts of its members and their opinions and complaints:

 “What is it like to live in Wester Hailes, the huge housing estate on the Western fringes of Edinburgh?  Today and tomorrow we look at the area and the people who are working hard to improve it.  They call themselves WHAT – and are looking, as a priority, at the community with a special emphasis on identity for the people living there.

 WHAT’s committee were “triers” who wanted to make Wester Hailes more than “just a dormitory for Edinburgh commuters”.  But the struggle they faced was also made much of – the poor reputation of the place; the fact that, out of a population of many thousands, WHAT could only muster 200 members; the difficulty of engendering any community spirit when “most of the people on the estate don’t even know their next-door neighbour”.

 Exacerbating this was a lack of even the most basic community facilities. WHAT’s committee had to meet in a classroom in Dumbryden Primary School “decorated with multi-colour paper depicting space rockets and a brighter, united Europe” to plan how to turn things around.  The tea they drank to refresh themselves was brewed in one of the school urns.

 “We’re still using the school because the mobile community centre the Lord Provost promised would be here at Christmas ’72 didn’t materialise…the mobile community centre would be a wooden hut affair that would last us for about three years.  The bricks and mortar community centre is on the Corporation’s drawing board.  Wester Hailes people have not much confidence of its erection until the 1980s.”

 Day 2 of the report (headline: “Meet 10,000 People With  Nothing To Do”) continued to paint a picture of discord and disadvantage – a small, embattled group struggling against the odds and getting nowhere fast, a place sinking under the weight of its problems.

 A member of WHAT expressed dissatisfaction with local councillor Brian Meek who he said “has never come to any of our meetings although he has been invited. What’s he doing to help us?”  Councillor Meek bemoaned that fact that he was one of three councillors who had to cover Colinton ward, the biggest in the city, and that Wester Hailes should have its own councillors.  According to the article, he claimed to have helped set up WHAT but now didn’t know who was chairman and hadn’t received any correspondence from the Association “for almost a year”.

 A sense of isolation and dislocation was pinpointed by the Reverend White of Holy Trinity, the recently built church, as a fundamental issue:

 “There are those who feel the wrench from Edinburgh or Leith into this new housing estate is too much and return a few months after arriving here…Many feel that the sheer distance of Wester Hailes from the city centre is unbearable.  There are others whose ties are all in the city.  For instance, Edinburgh contains their jobs, their aunts and grannies all live in the old toun.”

 To the police, the case was clear cut – the people themselves were the root of the problem. A “senior police spokesman” at Torphichen Street Police Station which covered Wester Hailes (located in the heart of the city more than five miles away) pronounced:

 “When people don’t care about their own environment and social life, one cannot expect them to be as cooperative with the police as are people who do care what goes on in their neighbourhood”.

 Unsurprisingly, this “special report” sought out the bad news and it hardly had to dig deep to come up with lots (and, in so doing, neatly helping along the process of stigmatisation).  Lack of facilities, mounting problems, bitterness and disappointment, accusations and recriminations – all that was real, but on the other side of the coin was a group of people who weren’t giving up.  And these “triers” would keep trying, speaking out for Wester Hailes, working to make things happen.

 By 1974, WHAT’S NEWS had become WHAT NEWS.  It looked a bit different, the typeface had changed, the layout had been revamped and there were adverts for local shops.  The committee listed on the back page had grown from 11 to 15 but was entirely different, bar one, from the original group of people in 1970.  The Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer were all new.

 However, the language was much the same, the spirit and ambition no less.  The March issue of ’74 was able to announce some big steps forward:

  “This week flags should be flying high over the roof tops of Wester Hailes.  The good neighbour scheme has got off the ground in Dumbryden, we expect to collect our new mini-bus on the 26th March and the contractors have said that the temporary community centre will be handed over to the Corporation on the 21st March”

 Nevertheless, under the headline of “SUCCESS OR FAILURE?” the newsletter made a point of spelling out the challenges that now presented themselves.  Everything which had been achieved had come “through hard work and long battles” but, in fact, it was only the beginning:

 “…this success brings its own problems.  Having gained these things we must make sure they are put to maximum use, and this can only be done if we have your support and your ideas.  So success or failure depends on you.”

 The committee had lots of ideas for the community centre – more playgroups, discos, shops, OAP afternoons, a young mums’ club – but it also wanted to know what everyone else thought. “What about your ideas?” it asked, “This is your community centre after all”.

The authorities still had to be confronted and badgered but the fight, it seemed, had become as much (even more?) about keeping the people of Wester Hailes engaged and motivated. WHAT evidently saw the situation as quite fragile – if its efforts slackened only a little, momentum could quickly be lost.

 Again and again the same message was hammered out: “In the end it all depends on you” – “Participation by you is a great weapon, let’s use it” – “Apathy is a killer of communities” – “We need your help”.

 The 10 separate contracts which comprised the main construction programme produced over 4,500 homes spread over seven neighbourhoods – and four shops.  That same March issue of WHAT NEWS announced a long awaited opening:

 “Shopping should be a lot easier in Wester Hailes when the new shopping centre opens. A spokesman for City Wall said that it would be open no later than the end of May…no longer will we have to travel into town when we want anything more exotic than a tin of beans or a packet of cornflakes. Think of the money you will be able to save on bus fares.”

 The same newsletter was also able to tell people that the bus service was going to be significantly expanded and a local rent office was being built which would save them the “long walk up to Sighthill”.  However, despite this, the needs of the community were “still great”.  A Social Club, a Work Shop and a Day Care Centre were specifically mentioned.

 “The main problem in getting these appears to be lack of ground, not to name foresight and planning. What we need is Action, not talk. If you know of any bits of ground that have possibilities then tell us about them.”

 Despite WHAT’s best efforts, nothing happened quickly and often it was painfully slow.  It was only “after asking for it for the last three years” that the rent office was finally being provided.  The community centre was “a glimmer of light” but they had only got that “after a long struggle”.  The shopping centre which was to have opened “no later than the end of May” and was going to save all those bus fares actually did not do so until October.

 By 1974 the vast majority of the homes in Wester Hailes had been completed.  There were now seven distinct neighbourhoods within the estate as a whole and smaller groups had been formed by local people in those areas to address their particular needs and problems.  Exactly like WHAT, they were formally constituted and independently run and controlled by the tenants themselves.

 The next year saw profound changes. Complete reorganisation of local government took place.  Edinburgh Corporation was scrapped and replaced by a two tier structure that split important, related functions such as Housing, Education and Social Work between Edinburgh District Council and Lothian Regional Council.  An entirely new political context came into being.

 In Wester Hailes the Social and Community Development Programme was launched.  This aimed to produce unified solutions to social problems in contrast to the piecemeal approach of the old Corporation.  SCDP was bankrolled by the EEC and Central Government with additional support from the District and Regional Councils and was the first influx of serious funding into the estate.

 At the same time, in a move of great significance, SCDP set up a local advisory committee – promptly christened Scooby-Doo – to help decide how this money should be spent.  Scooby-Doo included representatives from each of the local tenants associations and became the main focus for the community’s efforts to get better facilities, effectively supplanting home-grown WHAT which now disappeared from the scene.

 WHAT was the first tenant organisation to be formed in Wester Hailes, a spontaneous reaction by the earliest residents who found the reality of daily life in an enormous construction site, where more and more housing and little else was being built around them, to be totally unacceptable.

 From the start, WHAT aimed high.  It was not driven by any specific set of political ideals but was very much idealistic in nature. The optimism, energy, ambition – the verve – of that first newsletter was remarkable.  As was the spirit of self-reliance, the sturdy determination, the commitment to independence of action that drove it forward.

 The people who set up WHAT could see where Wester Hailes was heading and that something had to be done, and quickly.  There was no option, in their view, but to roll up the sleeves and get stuck in.  It was a can-do must-do attitude.  They were not prepared to be deferential, to sit quietly, to rely on others.

 If power is defined as the capability to make things happen, that, fundamentally, was what they were after.  They sought to tear down the screens that hid the workings of power, to intervene directly in what had been a closed process.  The power to demand to be heard, the power to force authority’s hand – that was what WHAT was about.

 WHAT had wanted to show that “all of Wester Hailes is behind us” so the Corporation had no option but to listen and act.  Yet mobilising a large section of the community under one banner was a huge challenge.  WHAT attracted members, it got more than a little support, but a couple of hundred amongst thousands was not enough.  As a mass organisation it never really took off. By the test of pure numbers, it failed.  

 The community existed only in theory when WHAT started up, in reality it was a community of strangers.  A local identity had to be created from scratch.  People had to be convinced that it was worth trying to make Wester Hailes a better place, and then be kept enthused and committed to the cause in the face of continuing delays and disappointments.  The pleas for support that peppered the pages of the newsletters tell their own story – “volunteers of any age or size will be welcome”; “We need your help”; “it all depends on you”.

 Throughout its existence WHAT had to fight battles – wars of attrition really – on two fronts. The long drawn out campaign of pushing and prodding the Corporation to provide the many facilities that were lacking plus the struggle, possibly even more taxing, to keep hopes and morale high within the area.  An enormous effort for any local association to sustain over the years, no matter how determined and well organised.

 Against the odds, WHAT made a difference.  Wester Hailes was a better place because of its efforts.  The community centre (albeit temporary) got built, a mini bus was bought, there were clubs for kids and OAPs, annual gala days were held.  Despite having a request for funding rejected by Edinburgh Corporation, WHAT managed to raise, on its own, enough money in 1973 to set up a project staffed by volunteers to provide support for the elderly and housebound.  FISH (For Information and Social Help) survived and developed to the extent that, ten years on, it had an office, funding from Lothian Region’s Social Work Department and employed seven workers.

 However, WHAT fell far short in its objective of getting necessary facilities provided “a good bit quicker than the Corporation planned”.  Much was not put in place until the Association was long gone, including services which would be regarded as cornerstones of any decent sized community.  The local secondary school did not open until 1978 and the health centre a further five years after that. Wester Hailes would have to wait till 1987 to get its own police station and as late as 1997, thirty years after the first tenants moved in, for a library to be built.

WHAT might have been unable to muster the clout to change things on a big scale, but nevertheless it persisted. It did not collapse. It maintained its independence and integrity. It served the community as well as it was able. First and foremost, WHAT showed that local people were not powerless, that they could change and improve their circumstances. A fuse had been lit within Wester Hailes which would burn and fizz down the years, triggering the launching of new campaigns and organisations, igniting all sorts of fresh ideas and energies.


One thought on “YOU NAME IT, WE HAVE NOT GOT IT!

  1. Pingback: Introducing the Inspiring History of Wester Hailes | Skills for Change

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