From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes


This is the final part of Pat Rogan’s speech about the clearance of Edinburgh’s slums. In this section, Pat concentrates on the challenges faced by the Council in finding the land to build new houses and getting a massive development programme into gear. In doing so, he gives some interesting insights into the decisions taken: like the demolition of prefabs (which happened in the Calders) and the almost complete absence of facilities in many of the new schemes – a problem which afflicted Wester Hailes in its early years. The final paragraph, which talks about the housing problems caused by a previous recession, could, unfortunately, be just as easily applied to the situation faced by many people today.

… So, at long last, the removal of the slums was underway. At the same time, action was now being taken to close down unfit houses, and grant, where necessary, overcrowding certificates on a more liberal scale. I discovered at this time that approximately 1,200 houses were available every year, through deaths, moonlights or evictions, but that the bulk of these houses remained empty for long periods because of slowness in preparing them for letting. These obstructions were soon removed, and welcome additional houses were now available.

Progress – but now we were faced with a shortage of building land. This had been anticipated, and some years earlier a number of high flats had been built to alleviate the difficulty. But the problem remained, so our thoughts turned to invading the Green Belt. Private builders, also hunting for building land, hoped that we would give a lead, but the opposition was too powerful and would have caused delays, which we couldn’t afford.

At this time – 1962 – I was made Chairman of the Housing Committee. The Council was beset by political stalemate; three Liberal and two SNP councillors held the balance, and – no doubt to stop my perpetual complaints! – the Progressives didn’t oppose me. The pressing need for land was still with us, and my first task was to tackle this question. In the immediate postwar years, Edinburgh had erected 4,000 prefabs – the largest number of any city in Scotland – and these houses were occupying valuable land, at a very low density. It was estimated that, by removing them, we could build 10,000 houses on the site made available.

The first hurdle was to get Government permission, because these houses were intended to last at least 20 years, and there were still a few years to go. However, it was discovered that the aluminium floor joists were showing signs of fatigue, so approval was granted. Opposition from the prefab tenants was another matter. They were very happy in their homes, and, if a brick skin could have been built around the exterior, then they could have stayed forever. But I refused to countenance any delay, and set in motion a system whereby we appointed contractors to remove the prefabs, and design and build their replacements. Understandably, this did not please some architects, but the need for houses was great, and the reward was a production of houses never before achieved in Edinburgh.

Dwellings under contract soared from 700 in 1961 to 2,700 by 1962, and two years later, before I demitted office, the number of houses under construction, contracted for, or tendered for, amounted to 3,617. The very worst of the slums had been demolished, and a programme was in place to deal with the remainder. Today, Edinburgh is free from the awful, disgraceful slums that existed 40 years ago.

Edinburgh being a very old city, and tourism being a main industry, it was vital that many of our old properties be retained, repaired or rebuilt. Although, at times, I found myself in conflict with conservationists over slum clearances, many buildings, especially in the Royal Mile, were saved from demolition. Unfortunately, the salvage operation should have been started many years earlier. But in the Canongate and Leith, we have many families settled in rehabilitated buildings, that are a great credit to Edinburgh.

In retrospect, many improvements could have been made on the housing crusade of thirty years ago. Unfortunately, wholesale developments were not controlled entirely by the Housing Committee. In preparing a large scheme, land had to be allocated for a school, but, time and time again, and years later, the land was not used. Requests to include libraries, community centres, and recreation facilities were never received from those committees, and provision of shops – the responsibility of the Finance Committee – was usually left to the good sense and judgement of the City Architect. This meant that many new housing estates were deprived, at the beginning, of amentities that would have made life more comfortable. It was my view then, and now, that in these matters a co-ordinator should be employed, so that all aspects of a new development can be considered well beforehand. But, then, are we ever again likely to see the building of large-scale municipal housing projects?

Last week, to complete these notes, I went up to the City Chambers in Edinburgh, and had a talk with the Depute Convener of Housing of Edinburgh District Council. I learned that the waiting list is now no less than 25,000, about half of that number being homeless. When I left office as Housing Chairman in 1965, the waiting list had been reduced to 6,000, but that number’s back up to 25,000! In discussing multi-storey blocks it appears that the public are still divided. Some love them, some loathe them. At present, there are 72 multi-storey blocks in Edinburgh. Seventeen are due for demolition, leaving 55, with 4,500 flats. But the most interesting thing that came out of our discussion was this. The District Council plan, for the next five years, has a paragraph headed: “Acquisition of Land and New Building”. It reads:

The District Council owns sites which have potential to be developed to meet housing need. At present, however, the Housing Department lacks the capital finance to embark on its new building programme. It also has to consider the “Right to Buy” implications of any new building scheme, as tenants will be able to purchase their homes at full discount after five years, leaving the Council with a large, longstanding loan debt on the houses sold, and with a reduced revenue base to service the debt.”

So, in effect, Edinburgh District Council is barred from embarking on worthwhile projects. Meantime, vast sums are being spent on maintaining existing housing stocks, and rehabilitating private properties – the point that was touched on by Dick Mabon earlier, and where, I may say, the money’s being used to very good advantage.

But, overall, the future certainly looks bleak, as the private sector is also stagnant, mainly because of the present recession. And therefore the whole future, for the homeless, and for those hoping to acquire a new home – especially the young ones coming up, who are looking for new homes of their own – I may say that the future, at least the near future, doesn’t look too bright at all. However, we can but hope that things will improve as they go along – that’s certainly my sentiment! Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.


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Last week’s Community Council meeting saw a presentation by housing developer Places For People and architects Cooper Cromar which outlined ideas and designs for the redevelopment of the vacant land at Harvesters Way. The meeting was well attended by members of the public demonstrating the keen interest there is within the local community about what is happening on this key site in the centre of Wester Hailes.

Various options for the overall design of the scheme – including the layout of roads, location of car parking and potential bus routes – were put forward. Members of the Community Council were heartened to see that Places For People aim to make a vibrant public realm area, located between the Healthy Living Centre and the proposed housing, the lynch pin of their plans. The architect also drew attention to the importance of establishing good pedestrian and cycle routes to inter-connect with adjacent areas.

Although the design process is still at a relatively early stage, Places for People indicated that the anticipated scale of the project will be between 150 and 170 homes and that these will be all or mostly flats. It is likely that social rented housing will comprise around 20% of this total with the remainder being made up of mid-market rent properties, housing for sale and shared ownership. The hope is that one or more small shops will be located within the housing block next to the public realm. The situation of this block will also allow a degree of passive surveillance over the area.

The representatives from Places For People confirmed that a further presentation will be made to the Community Council when more detailed designs have been prepared. As part of this ongoing process, the Community Council will be formally responding to Places For People in the near future with comments and suggestions as to how the outline designs might be developed and improved.

It’s great to see the developer and the Community Council working together closely like this and the input of local peoples’ knowledge and experience can only be good for the project and assist in ensuring its success and long-term sustainability.


Harvesters Way was originally known as Wester Hailes Drive and the land which is to be redeveloped was then occupied by five huge multi-storey blocks (numbers 70, 71, 72 73 and 74) which cast grim shadows over the surrounding area. From the beginning there were dampness problems within many of the flats due to poor design and construction. Very soon after that, the fabric of the buildings began to deteriorate at an alarming rate and all five blocks were demolished in 1994 just over twenty years after being built.

 – two of the blocks in their (non-) heyday

The site has since lain derelict despite various redevelopment proposals – including an ice rink, five-a-side football pitches and a leisure centre – being mooted over the years. 

Wester Hailes Drive looking west –


Thanks to the intervention of Wester Hailes Community Council there is now the possibility that the pedestrian walkway which will link the new Healthy Living Centre, currently under construction at Harvesters Way, with Westside Plaza could be extended and improved.

The current proposals have been drawn up to fit into a very restricted area because an agreement reached between the City Council and AWG (the owners of the shopping centre) allowed for only three car parking spaces in the Plaza car park being converted to help accommodate the walkway.

However, the Community Council has taken the initiative in this matter and written to AWG’s parent company asking them to consider making more of the car park area available so as to extend the space for the walkway and make it a safer and more accessible link. A reply has been received from AWG assuring the Community Council that this issue is being taken very seriously and that the company’s intention is to help and work with the local community. The ball is now in the City Council’s court to build on this positive response from AWG and reach an agreement for more land to be made available.

As we highlighted in April, the Harvesters Way placemaking exercise undertaken by internationally renowned designers Gehl Architects identified the need for strong pedestrian linkages between the Healthy Living Centre to all parts of the surrounding areas. In particular, the link with the Plaza was seen as being of crucial importance in the successful regeneration of the derelict site.

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Last week we posted a short article about the placemaking exercise carried out by Gehl Architects which examined how the vacant land at Harvesters Way could be re-developed to maximise benefit for the local community. We’ve scanned in below a few pages from the draft report which give more details of the transformation of the site and the whole central area of Wester Hailes which Gehl envisaged.

The approach that Gehl adopt is to turn the design process upside down by making the well-being of people the cornerstone of all their planning. They first look at the potential for what the life of a community – it’s activities and attractions – could be developed into; then, secondly, how the spaces in an area would best be organised to support this public life and then, and only then, do they begin to consider the design of the buildings themselves.

Gehl’s guiding principle and main purpose is to create sustainable environments and promote a holistic lifestyle. Their view is that “a city should open up, invite and include people, having different activities and possibilities and thereby ensure multiplicity and diversity“.

When Gehl looked at Wester Hailes what they saw were lots of opportunities rather than problems…

…And they put forward various ideas as to how this potential could be turned into reality…

…They saw the Healthy Living Centre as being the first piece of that jigsaw, beginning the process of spreading benefit throughout the community and initiating the building of key pedestrian linkages…

…And the train station was identified as a key component in building an integrated transport hub

Gehl’s report concluded by highlighting the fact that it has been over 20 years since a comprehensive planning brief for the centre of Wester Hailes was compiled. However, as a result of the placemaking exercise, they felt that a vision for the future of the estate had begun to take shape and that the time was ripe for the development of a new masterplan to take this forward.

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Over the last couple of years, Prospect has spent a considerable amount of time and money working up proposals to redevelop the major part of what is known locally as “the ten acre site” at Harvesters Way which has lain vacant and derelict for over fifteen years following the demolition of the Wester Hailes Drive multi-storey blocks. However we have now, very reluctantly, had to abandon these plans because of the huge cuts made by the Scottish Government to the funding given to housing associations for house building.

The rest of the site is currently under construction to provide the new Healthy Living Centre and during the process of its design there was a lot of work done by Prospect in conjunction with the City of Edinburgh Council and Lothian Health Board to produce an overall masterplan and a properly integrated site layout. In particular, we felt it was vitally important to create a safe, attractive public space (we called it the public realm) at the crucial intersection of the Healthy Living Centre, the new housing, the rail station and shopping centre.

In order to develop these ideas further, we commissioned Gehl Architects, a world renowned town planning consultancy to work with us. Founded by Jan Gehl, a Professor of Urban Design in Copenhagen, they have a radical approach to design that might be regarded by more than a few architects as “upside down” in the sense that it puts people first: before any building design is done they concentrate on how the spaces between buildings should be laid out to maximise the benefits for residents and the environment. In other words, what they are about is making places rather than simply drawing up plans for buildings. 

Working on these principles Gehl undertook a comprehensive placemaking exercise for Harvesters Way and produced a draft report outlining the sort of public realm which could be created to spread benefit throughout the community as a whole. Their two big ideas were a) that the housing adjoining the public realm should have “active edges” with shops and community facilities on the ground floor for local people to make use of and b) the creation of a transport and people hub involving various forms of public transport – buses, taxis and trains – together with strong pedestrian linkages to and from all parts of the surrounding areas.

Their placemaking work also involved examining whole of the central area of the estate and the view they came to was that Wester Hailes is full of potential (remember the old Partnership slogan?). The railway line is not a barrier but a link that provides a very good transport link into the centre of the city; the canal is a facilty with huge amenity value; and the Greenway, currently uninviting and underused, could be made into a recreation destination for the entire community. By making more of this potential and with sufficient investment, their expert opinion was that the face of Wester Hailes could be totally transformed.

Wester Hailes has had more than enough unattractive, under-utilised, unpopular areas inflicted on it during its history. It is to be hoped that at least some of the elements of the ambitious, but eminently practical vision set out by Gehl are retained by whoever comes in to complete the redevelopment of this most important site. Please let’s not see another major opportunity for real improvement in Wester Hailes go a-begging.


The history of Wester Hailes has been one of almost continuous change. The construction of the housing itself took around seven years (make that ten if you include the Calders) which meant that for many of the early tenants Wester Hailes was just  like one massive, expanding building site.

Then there was a new phase in which, bit by bit, the much-needed facilities for the huge population were added: a shopping centre, police station, train station, council offices etc. At the same time, a wide range of community-led initiatives were also springing up when and where land was available.

In some cases (e.g. the police and train stations) this took so long to happen that it actually overlapped with the start of the demolition of the worst of the original housing and the launching of major new initiatives centred on the provision of new homes to replace them.

The process of regeneration has continued right up to the present and the two photos below illustrate just how radical some of those changes to the physical aspect of the estate have been.

The picture above was taken in 1990 from a bedroom in what was then Wester Hailes Drive and shows the fire brigade dealing with a fire in a nearby block, attracting plenty of local interest in the process. Beyond the four storey buildings, one of the multi-storey blocks which also formed part of the Wester Hailes Drive area can be seen on the right hand side of the photo. Note also the lack of cars in the large areas of parking in the central square and the boarded up flats on the ground floors opposite.

Now, fast forward to the present day. This second photo, believe it or not, is of the identical view taken from the same bedroom window last weekend. All the drab four storey blocks have been demolished and the bleak open spaces have gone to be replaced by low rise houses, semi-detatched or terraced, each with their own private gardens.

This scheme was constructed by Prospect in 1996 and is only one of a number of new build projects, for rent or for sale, which housing associations and private builders have built on various brownfield sites in Wester Hailes following the major programme of demolitions undertaken by the City Council in the 1990s. Incidentally, in the far right hand corner, on the horizon, you can just make out the profile of one of the last three multis, located in Hailesland, which still remain standing.

It may have taken a long time, it might still be ongoing, but the changes to the area over the years have led to great improvements in the quality of housing and of the environment of Wester Hailes.

Many thanks to Sandra for these excellent pics!


Pat Rogan, who has just died aged 92 and whose obituary we carried two weeks ago, was a local politician of pivotal significance in the drive to transform Edinburgh’s housing conditions in the mid-twentieth century. He spearheaded a major programme of slum clearance in the central areas of the city and the provision of thousands of new homes which included the building of Wester Hailes.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr Rogan a couple of years ago when carrying out some initial research into the history of Wester Hailes. He was good enough to give me a copy of a speech he had delivered to a housing conference entitled: Rehousing The Capital – The Crusade Against Edinburgh’s Slums, and I’ve included below a number of extracts from it which give a vivid insight into the huge problems and challenges which had to be addressed.

Then 90, he spoke quietly with controlled passion as he recounted stories about the appalling conditions that many in Edinburgh were living in half a century ago – filth, disease, vermin infestation and buildings in such disrepair that, in some cases, walls were literally falling down about people’s ears. Just how bad the state of the slum housing was became starkly apparent to him within a few weeks of being first elected in 1954.

“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 looking 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 those unfortunates was a young mother who that very day had returned from hospital with her new-born babe.”

Trying to find help, he went to the local police station only to discover that there were no emergency services to deal with the problem although complaints about leaking roofs came in every time there was heavy rain. In order to do something to try and alleviate the situation, Pat opened up the yard of the building firm which he managed, found a couple of tarpaulins, took them up onto the roof, and, “with the help of a couple of men from the tenement, spread them over the worst of the rotten slates”. That was all he could do there and then but it was the night Pat Rogan’s crusade began.

Immediately, he set out to find 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…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 watertight. 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 Planning Department informed Pat to his disgust that no clearance and rebuilding work was envisaged in his Holyrood ward for at least twenty years. But the situation was about to change because of a near-disaster which received wide publicity and highlighted the highly dangerous state of many of the slums. In Pat’s ward there was an abandoned building in Beaumont Place whose owner had refused to carry out repairs and, instead, had offered it to the Corporation for the price of one penny. Because of this it became known as the “Penny Tenement”. One night in 1959, a large bulge appeared in the gable wall of the Penny Tenement and a few hours later it collapsed. Luckily none of the occupants were killed but Pat was quickly off the mark to follow up the implications:

“In the City Chambers, I asked the Town Clerk who would be responsible if anyone was killed or injured in a similar mishap. A week later, he came back with the legal answer that Edinburgh Corporation would be responsible! This information sent alarm bells ringing, so immediate inspections on all doubtful properties were ordered by the City Engineer. This move brought quick results and, within nine days, 101 families were removed from dangerous homes and re-housed in safer surroundings.”

The programme of slum clearance had been well and truly kickstarted and Pat was in the forefront of it over the coming years.

“All in all, that was a most exciting time. Everyone was caught up in the hectic job of finding new homes. The enthusiasm of our officials was marvellous and previous apathy was cast aside. The urgency of indentifying dangerous buildings went on at a high speed and the Dean of Guild Court, of which I was a member, was in constant demand to visit suspect properties and adjudiacate, where necessary, over disputes regarding their stability.”

However, that was only half the answer. Lots of new homes had to be provided and there was a serious shortage of building land. In 1962, Pat became Chairman of the Housing Committeee and this was the first challenge that he faced.

“In the immediate post-war years, Edinburgh had erected 4,000 prefabs – the largest number of any city in Scotland – and these houses were occupying valuable land, at a very low density. It was estimated that, by removing them, we could build 10,000 houses on the sites made available.”

This policy was not popular in certain quarters, not least amongst the prefab tenants themselves but Pat saw to it that a programme of demolition and rebuilding was swiftly implemented: “the need for houses was great and the reward was a production of houses never before achieved in Edinburgh”.

It was as part of this programme that the present-day Calders was built on the site of an old prefab scheme. But the redevelopment of those sites could  not, on its own, provide the massive amount of housing needed to replace the slums. It was then that Housing Committee turned to available greenfield sites on the periphery to make up the shortfall, the largest of which was Wester Hailes.

In previous articles on this blog we have highlighted the flaws in the system-building solutions utilised by some contractors in order to construct Wester Hailes as quickly as possible. But the tremendous pressures Council leaders such as Pat Rogan were under to get people out of slum conditions with the minimum of delay should not be forgotten. At the time, those methods of construction seemed to offer an infinitely preferable solution to the set-up that Pat inherited when he took office.

“… the whole situation was aggravated by a slow-moving house building programme. The method of tendering for new housing didn’t help matters. At that time, tenders were accepted on an individual trade basis with each contractor, or sub-contractor, responsible for his own work, the overall control or supervision being left to the officers of the Town Council. This involved the Town in arithmetical checking of all these separate tenders before contracts could be awarded. But, worse, at the monthly progress review, we were told repeatedly that delays were caused by certain contractors who, impeding the whole works, would blame lack of labour, shortage of materials, or lack of cooperation from other trades. I was instrumental in having this changed, so that one main contractor was appointed. He was held responsible for all sub-contract work and would be answerable for delays or bad workmanship.”

And, as to the other main charge laid against the Council when Wester Hailes was first built – the almost total lack of facilities – Pat Rogan, for one, had been well aware of the vital importance of providing these and, in his speech, he offered a revealing explanation as to why, despite his position as Chair of the Housing Committee, it never happened.

“In retrospect, many improvements could have been made on the housing crusade of thirty years ago. Unfortunately, wholesale developments were not controlled entirely by the Housing Committee. In preparing a large scheme, land had to be allocated for a school but , time and time again, and years later the land was not used. Requests to include libraries, community centres and recreation facilities were never received from those committees and provision of shops – the responsibility of the Finance Committee – was usually left to the good sense and judgement of the City Architect. This mean that many new housing estates were deprived, at the beginning, of amenities that would have made life more comfortable.”

To me, hearing Pat speak and reading his words was a salutary reminder of the enormity of the problem and all the pressures and constraints he, and those working with him were faced with as they laboured to wipe Edinburgh clean of its terrible slums. To many people nowadays, the conditions in these would be almost unimaginable. They are perhaps best summed up by Pat himself quoting conversations with one of his officials:

“When discussing housing with him, he often spoke to me about one of his predecessors…who defined a slum as “Darkness, Dampness and Dilapidation”. I have not heard a better description, unless one adds the word “Despair”.

– Roy McCrone