From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

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Food For Free?

When Lord Freud commented this week that there was no causal link between the rise in food banks and recent benefit changes, he used the argument that when you provide something for free, there will be an almost “infinite demand”.  His background and lifestyle don’t immediately suggest that he has had much experience of food banks, but he was insistent that no proof existed to connect the sharp rise in referrals to food banks with the recent introduction of welfare reform.  The DWP has acknowledged that Jobcentre Plus staff are now referring some clients to food banks, so they might be in a good position to advise the Work and Pensions minister what circumstances would lead to this uptake of food bank services.

The idea that if you offer something like food for free, there will always be a demand for it seems on the surface to be persuasive.  But perhaps Lord Freud should have looked back a few years before sounding so definite.  Back in the 1980s, the UK Conservative Government of the day became involved in the distribution of EEC surplus butter, cheese and meat.  The EEC’s Common Agricultural Policy had led to food surpluses being created, generating controversy over piled high mountains of butter, milk lakes etc.  The EEC agreed that this surplus should be reduced through redistribution to disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.  The Conservative administration was initially reluctant to allow this to happen, saying it would have a detrimental economic effect.  However, after an extremely cold winter it recognised the negative impact of being seen to refuse distribution and agreed the aid measures.

The Government kept a deliberate distance from the distribution, putting the Butter-Mountain-460onus on charities to carry out this work, a task that was difficult for them to refuse.  Charities were also left the job of publicising the scheme, and the decision making on who was eligible to receive the food.  This led to variances between areas, with some charities being stretched to the limit by the extra demand on their resources and budget and eligibility differing from one part of the country to another.  Queues outside distribution centres were a common sight.  Whilst a few people worked out that the lack of a central plan meant it was possible to visit more than one centre, many others felt a sense of stigma.  The food may have been free, but for them accessing it came at too great a price.  Others queued but felt devalued by the process.

Wester Hailes took a different approach to the situation.  In 1987, the Salvation Army had taken delivery of 300 tonnes of free butter and some of this was earmarked for Wester Hailes.  The local community had recently shown how effective it was at organising support through the Snowline campaign, leading to the Salvation Army asking Snowline to co-ordinate distribution efforts locally.  The Snowline organisers decided that everyone in the community should receive a share, and that they would deliver the butter door to door to make sure everyone got enough.  The Sentinel promoted the campaign, making sure everyone knew they were eligible for the scheme. distributing butter

16 tonnes of butter and 12 tonnes of cheese were distributed by a team of local volunteers. When challenged over their interpretation of need extending to everyone, the team pointed out that they were following government guidelines and that it was the government who had designated Wester Hailes as a multi deprived area.

“Coupled with the strong community participation in Wester Hailes, that made it possible for us to argue that every local man, woman and child should get their free share.”

You can read more about the distribution process here.

The door to door delivery and the equality of distribution took away any stigma and made sure that everyone received their entitlement.  And it was presented as an entitlement rather than a hand-out.  The Common Agricultural Policy had kept food prices high with those on a lower income being particularly affected by the cost of basic food stuffs.  It could be argued that they had already paid for the small EEC surplus they received through the scheme.

Whilst everyone in Wester Hailes benefited, in other areas of the country others did not access the support despite it being free, a fact Lord Freud might be interested in.  Meanwhile in 2013, the number of people using food banks has trebled over the last year despite that fact that most food banks operate a referral process, ensuring the food parcels go to those most in need.  Katherine Trebeck, policy and advocacy manager for the UK poverty programme at Oxfam, commented that

“You have to be in a pretty desperate place to ask someone else for food.”

For more information about the 1987 EEC distribution in Britain:

The reluctant philanthropists: Thatcherism, the butter mountain and the welfare state.
By Sue Kirvan and Alan Tuckman Critical Social Policy 1987

Digital Sentinel: A New Chapter for Local News

Digital Sentinel Tasters May 2013

“Every community needs its own Sentinel.”

 This was the conclusion of the Rep Council, reflecting on 20 years of the Sentinel in 1996.  Over the last few years, we have regularly looked at the role theSentinel played within Wester Hailes in bringing together the community, Delivering the Sentinelrepresenting its voice, and encouraging democratic participation.  The Sentinel operated through print only during its lifetime but this was in common with many printed publications, and also reflected the relative lack of internet access within people’s homes in Wester Hailes even when the internet was growing in use as a media tool. However, if the Sentinel was being set up today, it would undoubtedly have an online presence.  Over the last few months, an exciting new project, the Digital Sentinel has been developing to establish a community news website for Wester Hailes, written and edited by local residents.  A series of workshops has been enabling people to start gaining skills and experience in how to use a variety of formats such as Youtube and Flickr, uploading their stories, news and views using a range of digital technology.

Now the emerging news agency has been recognised by the Carnegie UK Trust’s Neighbourhood News with a grant of £10,000.  It is only one of five projects to receive funding after facing strong competition, and the only project to be awarded funding in Scotland.  WHALE Arts Agency is leading on this project, representing a collaboration of organisations in Wester Hailes including Wester Hailes Health Agency, Prospect Community Housing, Wester Hailes Time Bank and the Wester Hailes Community Council.  Together they have been working with academic research partners on providing access to online social history archives using QR codes, blogs and Facebook sites. It is one of a suite of projects under the banner “Our Place in Time” using digital media to provide access to archives and to tell the stories of Wester Hailes today.  The funding will enable further training to support the recruitment and development of citizen journalists to take the project forward.

QR codes on totem poleThe Digital Sentinel may turn out to look very different from the old printed paper but it will be firmly connected to the values associated with the original publication.  The experience of the Sentinel shows that above all, community news needs to be independent, locally based and locally accountable.  It is great news that the new Digital Sentinel will continue in this tradition in its aspiration to be community led, with residents trained as citizen reporters and content managed by community editors.  The news will be produced by people within the community, with their own particular perspective.  They will be able to cover stories that are not of interest to larger news agencies and with the hope of reversing the trend for negative media representation of Wester Hailes that continues to be an issue in sections of the press.  And at the heart of the project will be the aim to continue the high ethical standards that the printed Sentinel set in its efforts to act as a unifying voice.

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 Wester Hailes Partnership was launched in 1989 under the banner “Wester Hailes – Full of Potential” tasked with developing and implementing a strategy to regenerate the estate by the end of the 1990s. In 1995, halfway through its expected lifespan, the Scottish Office Central Research Unit published what they called an “Interim Evaluation of the Wester Hailes Partnership”. The Evaluation’s findings were based on a range of existing reports including household surveys carried out in the area in 1989 and 1994, unemployment stats and interviews with a large number of people who had been or were currently involved in the work of the Partnership.

Just how far had the potential of Wester Hailes – located next to a large established industrial estate, close to the Gyle shopping and business hub, and with very good transport links – been realised after 5+ years? Interviews with residents  identified that more people thought that the area was changing for the better than had been the case prior to the Partnership being set up. Also, the energetic participation of the community (i.e. the time spent by unpaid local activists and volunteers across the full range of policy and strategy sub-groups) had been a major factor in getting things off the ground. However, the report also identified the complex administrative structure of the Partnership as placing great demands on these people, flagging up the issue of whether this level of involvement would be sustainable in the longer term.

The community might have been playing its part but, nevertheless, the report concluded that the Partnership “did not get off to a good start”. Edinburgh District Council and Lothian Regional Council were seen as being “reluctant participants” in the early stages when the Partnership was “trying to develop its agenda and create momentum”. The decision to make Wester Hailes a Partnership area was regarded by the two Labour-controlled Councils as being driven by the fact that it was located within the constituency of the then Tory Secretary of State for Scotland, Malcolm Rifkind. The lesson the Report drew from this was  that “partnerships formed from the bottom up were likely to pose fewer problems in terms of cohesion and drive” than a top down approach. Also, up to that point, the private sector (essentially private housebuilders) had played a minor role, due to the shortage of developable land.

In terms of actual measurable outcomes, the picture in 1995 was decidedly mixed. The launch of a major redevelopment of the town centre area was seen as a significant achievement. In addition, although health and crime  were not high priorities on the Partneship’s agenda, there was evidence of declining crime rates and of increasing confidence in the local secondary school. On the debit side, there had been no decrease in poverty with the proportion of households receiving benefit payments actually increasing from 68% to 74% between 1998 and 1994. The report interpreted this as reflecting a continuing flow of “disadvantaged households” into the area. And with regard to the Partnership’s economic strategy, there was little sign of reduction in unemployment relative to Edinburgh as a whole. It was noted that the issue of unemployment and the Partnership’s failure to tackle the problem more effectively was where “frustration at the pace of change was expressed most consistently” by interviewees.

Housing had been identified as the key element of the regeneration strategy but, here again, progress had been slow. This was due to a number of factors: there was little vacant land immediately available for development; it took time for Edinburgh District Council and Scottish Homes (the Government’s funding body) to establish an effective working relationship; and there was considerable delay in putting in place agreements to facilitate mixed tenure redevelopments. By 1995 it did seem as though this area of the Partnership’s work was belatedly starting to gain momentum. However, the report noted that the relatively slow progress in the early stages had “conveyed a poor impression of the effectiveness of the Partnership”.

So, according to the the Interim Evaluation, the Partnership’s report card for 1995 was a case of could have done better, maybe a lot better. Despite the fanfare of its launch it had got off to a slow start. There had been a few successes but, in terms of the main regeneration objectives of housing and the local economy, relatively little concrete progress had been made by the midway point. It left a huge amount to be achieved during the second five year period.

Next week we’ll take a look at what was ultimately achieved by the Partnership and what long term legacy it bequeathed to Wester Hailes.

Welfare Reform Information

Welfare benefits reform has now regularly been hitting the headlines as the media has finally realised the huge effects of the new legislation on the lives of thousands of people.  It seems that every week now for example there are requests on Twitter for people affected by the bedroom tax to contact journalists eager to produce stories highlighting the new policy on “under occupation”.  It would have perhaps have been helpful to have had this level of interest 2 years ago as the bill proceeded through Parliament but it may have been hard then to imagine the implications of what was being proposed.

Last year we looked at the role the Sentinel had to play in keeping people aware Youth Programme Soup Kitchenand informed about major benefit changes affecting them in the 1980s and 1990s.  The sweeping changes brought about through the Fowler Review and the resulting effects for those claiming benefits were highlighted in detail by the paper and readers were encouraged to get advice from local organisations and agencies.

With these new changes coming into force starting in April this year, it is equally important that those affected are aware of how the new requirements will impact on their lives and that they receive advice on their particular situation and potential options.  A Welfare Reform Information Event is being held next week in Wester Hailes on Wednesday 13th March at the Library.  This is a drop in session organised by Prospect Community Housing, CHAI and City of Edinburgh Council.  It’s a chance for local residents to find out if they are affected, who they need to talk to and where to get further support.  People can drop in at any time between 3pm-7pm.

welfare reform ad


In November 2011, we posted an article about former city councillor Pat Rogan who had just died aged 92. We described him as “a local politician of pivotal significance in the drive to transform Edinburgh’s housing conditions in the mid-twentieth century”; highlighting the fact that he had helped to spearhead “a major programme of slum clearance in the central areas of of the city and the provision of thousands of new homes which included the building of Wester Hailes”.

Mr Rogan had very kindly given us a copy of a speech entitled “Rehousing The Capital: The Crusade Against Edinburgh’s Slums” which he had delivered to a housing conference in the 1990s, following his retirement. His speech painted a vivid, sometimes humourous, sometimes shocking picture of the problems and challenges which he had to face. We included a number of extracts from it in our article and now, over the next four weeks, we are going to reproduce it in its entirety. Over to you Pat…

In the year 1954, much against my wish, or desire, I was elected a councillor to Edinburgh Corporation. At that time, one third of the Council retired by rotation, which meant that 23 seats had to be filled. At that election, following the usual trend, eight candidates were returned  unopposed – or, as we used to say at the time, returned unexposed! In the ward where I was elected, the sitting councillor had resigned, and the Ward Party was unable to find anyone to replace him. Without a candidate, the seat, normally safe Labour, would have been presented to the Progressives. To avoid such a calamity, I was persuaded to enter the ring, but I did so on the strict understanding that I would hold the seat for one year only, which would give the Ward Party ample time to find my successor. Twenty years later, with good behaviour, I was let out!

I had no ambition to hold public office, and I was quite content within the Labour Party to be a backroom worker, and help others become MPs and councillors. In 1950, I was the election agent for Andrew Gilzean, the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh Central; and when he died I was offered the vacancy, which I declined. The man who was selected for the seat, Tom Oswald, held it for the next 21 years until he retired.

So, you see, I was not overjoyed at becoming a councillor. But, realising the responsibility that had been thrust upon me, I attempted to find out what the job entailed. I sought advice among my more experienced colleagues, but I learned little from them, mainly because they suffered from what I can only describe as “committee preoccupation”: that is, they knew a great deal about their own committees, but not a great deal about committees that didn’t arouse their interest. There was an element of snobbery about committee selection, so I, being a newcomer and a building trade worker – was placed on the Housing Committee, and a couple of others that were considered of little importance.

The composition of Edinburgh Corporation at that time was interesting. The Progressive Party had a high proportion of retired people, businessmen and housewives who could afford the time. The Labour Party had a few small businessmen, some trade union officials, some housewives, but just a handful of artisans. The progressives had a majority of 2:1. The year before my arrival, councillors, for the first time, became able to claim loss of earnings, which provided a maximum of £1 for a full day and 10s for four hours. As these amounts represented about half of what a tradesman could earn, I, and a few others, found ourselves subsidising Edinburgh Town Council. On the credit side, one was provided with a bus pass, and a lunch, if attending committees.

My lack of experience, my ignorance, amd my innocence were fully exposed a few weeks after becoming a councillor. One very wet and windy night, a deputation, consisting of half a dozen folk from a tenement in the Canongate, arrived at my door. Their roof was leaking badly, their houses were almost flooded, and what was I going to do about it? I didn’t know what to do, but I accompanied them back to their homes so that I could see the extent of the damage. I found their complaints were not exaggerated. People were huddled in corners trying to avoid the worst of the downpour, while efforts had been made to protect their belongings, especially their bedding. Among these unfortunates was a young mother who that very day had returned from hospital with her new-born babe.

In an effort to help them, I called in at the local police station, and unfolded my sorry tale to a sympathetic and understanding sergeant. No, he was unaware of emergency services for leaking roofs. If the building was dangerous, he knew what to do. But complaints about leaking roofs arrived with every rain storm, and he, unfortunately, couldn’t help. At that time, I was managing a small jobbing builders’ business, so I opened up the yard, found two tarpaulins, and, with the help of a couple of men from the tenement, spread them over the worst of the rotten slates. And that, for the moment, was as much as I could do.

At the first opportunity, I set about finding out why such conditions were tolerated. The first thing I discovered was that the owners had abandoned the property, because they were unable to meet the maintenance costs. No rents were being collected, and the house agents had no funds to carry out repairs. I also discovered that, throughout Edinburgh, scores of tenements had been deserted, and, in some instances, whole streets of properties had been abandoned by their owners. Meantime, City officials were trying, in a half-hearted way, to trace the owners, and serve notices regarding their duty to keep their houses wind- and water-tight. As many of the owners had left the country, the task of finding them was almost impossible, and, as the Corporation was most unlikely to be compensated for repairs, the unfortunate occupiers of the run-down houses were left marooned. The number of new houses available was insufficient to have them re-housed immediately, so their only remaining hope was through the Council’s house letting system – providing, of course, they were eligible.

And here was another problem. House letting was not controlled by the Housing Committee, but by the Finance Committee. Over a long period of years, officials of house-letting had devised a scheme, subsequently altered and amended as they saw fit, and approved, I suspect, without argument, from the Finance Committee. The end result was a method whereby points were awarded under various headings – health, homelessness, size of family, waiting time – but not the condition of your present abode. Under health, the only points to be gained were if any member of the household suffered from pulmonary T.B.. Heart conditions earned nothing, and the same applied to the limbless, or people confined to their home for whatever reason. Fortunately, a cure was found for T.B., and then heart conditions became a priority for rehousing ( and, incidentally, it’s rather sad that the scourge of T.B. has arrived again in our midst!). Sizes of families presented problems, because ages of children determined pointage, and a child only qualified for a full point after its tenth birthday. Waiting time carried little benefit, and was of value only when added to other points acquired. Many people had been waiting since before the war to secure a home.

Copyright: Pat Rogan

Polling Direct Action

There are few pieces of legislation that can still evoke such strong reactions as the innocuously titled Community Charge.  More infamously known as the Poll Tax, this new form of taxation would prove to have profound and far reaching effects not anticipated during its formulation.  It was brought in as a result of the Local Government Finance Act in 1988 to replace the Domestic Ratings System, and implemented a flat rate tax on everyone regardless of income.  Whilst reductions were available for those on a low income, everyone had to pay at least 20%.  In Scotland, the poll tax is also particularly remembered as being introduced a year earlier than in the rest of the UK.

In November 1987 when the proposal of the poll tax had become a reality, the Sentinel focused one of its Street Sentinel reports on whether people would pay the new tax.  You can see the results here.  The following year the paper again alerted its readers to the new tax on the horizon with information from Edinburgh District Council on how local residents would be affected and what everyone would have to pay.  As in hundreds of communities, people in Wester Hailes held protests about the new tax but the following year, the first community charge bills landed on people’s doorsteps.

Those who could not afford to pay faced debt and anxiety with bills and reminder letters piling up. Local authorities took legal action in an effort to collect some of what was owed, leading in Scotland to a sharp rise in the number of warrant sales.  The Sentinel had previously highlighted the plight of people facing warrant sales back in October 1988 prior to the poll tax’s implementation.  Sometimes described as legal break-ins, warrant sales auctioned off a debtor’s possessions in order to recoup a debt.  A local resident shared her story, describing vividly the humiliation and misery the warrant sale process created.  With the arrival of the poll tax, there would have been many similar stories in the area.

As well as people being unable to pay, there was a growing anti poll tax movement with people able to pay but choosing not to as a form of protest.  “Can Pay, Won’t Pay” quickly gathered momentum and politicians both local and national found themselves at the sharp end of the question Are you paying the Poll Tax, knowing that their answer would be of media interest.  When new councillor Margaret McCulloch was interviewed by the Sentinel, she was asked if she was paying the poll tax.  She stated that she was, saying that as the council was asking others to pay, she felt she had a responsibility to do the same.  Meanwhile another local councillor John Mulvey argued that the only way to defeat the tax was through a mass campaign of agitation and he refused to pay.

By the end of 1990, more than 1 million Scots had refused to pay their community charge.  Huge waves of protest swept across England and Wales as the tax was introduced that year. Whilst 50,000 people marched in Glasgow on March 31st 1990 relatively peacefully, the day will really be remembered for the 100,000 strong demonstration in London that led to the worst riots in the city of the 20th century.  The poll tax is regarded by many as being a key factor in Margaret Thatcher’s resignation in November 1990.  It also led to arguments within the Labour party with those on the left wing of the party challenging the official opposition response.  A relatively short lived piece of legislation, it has managed to attain legendary status.

Perhaps the anti poll tax campaign’s biggest achievement was that it brought together a diverse range of protesters many of whom had never contemplated direct action before: pensioners, church congregations, local workers, high earners all felt strongly enough about the injustice of the tax to take a stand.  And with it being a tax implemented on all, being able to withhold payment made protesting both simple and effective.  The broad range and sheer volume of non payers made successful collection impossible.  Whilst many people may feel a similar sense of injustice over the Welfare Benefit reforms, there are fewer options available to show their protest.  And of course, the reforms divide rather than unite.