From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

Green Times

Terry Nutkins at the Calders helping to plant trees

Terry Nutkins at the Calders helping to plant trees

With the sun shining and soaring temperatures, people want to be outside whenever possible to enjoy the weather, and to catch a cool breeze if it’s all feeling a bit too much for a Scottish summer!  In an area where many people don’t have their own garden or access to a communal garden, having areas of green space that can be used and enjoyed is of great importance.  In the mid-View over lake to shopping centre1960s when plans for Wester Hailes were being drawn up, it is clear that in the early stages, green space was an integral part of the design, with open planted areas and pathways lined by trees.  However these plans never made it off the drawing board, and the main open space provided was the famously vast car park deserts surrounding the new high rise blocks.

Whilst there were many pressing needs to be addressed in the early days of Wester Hailes, more accessible green space was part of the aim for a better area.  When looking at the current state of park land and possible sites for green development, the report Ten Years On commented that the fact there was no proper park in the area was deeply regrettable.  It went on to say

 “It is worth mentioning as an aside that even some of the worst industrial slums of the nineteenth century were provided with parks near at hand by the planners of the day.”

Over the years, great efforts were made to increase green space and to break up Clovenstone gardenthe concrete with grass, trees and planting.  The schools played an important role, with children taking part in planting projects.  This was sometimes to improve the area within the school playground such as the wildlife garden planted by children at Clovenstone Primary School in 1991.  But schools were also involved in wider planting schemes to improve local areas.  One hundred children from Dumbryden Primary School planted 100 plants in Dumbryden Grove as part of a series of environmental improvements carried out there.

The appointment of an Environmental Ranger for the area helped boost the profile of local environmental issues, and the Ranger had a regular column in the Sentinel.  After a year in post, he listed some of the new activities and groups with a focus on improving the environment.  Later that year he wrote about the importance of green space, and listed some of the nearest green spaces within walking distance of Wester Hailes.

union canalMany people from outside the area still have preconceived ideas about what the area looks like, and the enduring image of those desolate bare car parks seems to be part of the many myths surrounding Wester Hailes.  Visitors to the area, particularly on a summer day are often surprised by how different the reality is.  The environmental improvements carried out as part of the re-opening of the Union Hailes Quarry ParkCanal have resulted in a great asset for the area.  The development of Hailes Quarry Park has created community parkland with new additions including the recently planted wildflower meadow.  Over in Westburn, the Community Woodland was developed from a derelict woodland site into a conserved community resource.  Gate 55 is currently developing its garden space through a gardening project, there are new allotments at Dumbryden and a community garden, the Green Gym in the Calders.  These and other developments over the years have resulted in a better balance of developed land alongside green space with mature trees.  The City of Edinburgh Council recognises how important trees are and is in the process of consulting over Trees In The City, a draft set of policies and action plan which will be used to guide the management of its trees and woodlands.  In its introduction it states,

“Trees make a vital contribution to quality of life in Edinburgh.”

There has recently been disquiet in Wester Hailes over what some see as a new tarmacking policy being implemented in the area to reduce the need to maintain grass and bushy plants due to budget cuts.  Residents have mixed views but it is perhaps not much of a choice to be offered either overgrown untended bushes or an area of tarmac.  You can read about a recent campaign and its results here.

After an intensive planting scheme had been carried out in the early 1990s, the Ranger detailed in the Sentinel some of the benefits this planting brought to the people living there, to the community as a whole, and to the environment.

Benefits of green space

The Greening of Hailes

Wester Hailes

Early photos of Wester Hailes are dominated by the high rise blocks separated by wide seas of concrete and tarmac.  The green spaces that were included were certainly spacious but were not usable public space and sometimes seemed barren and arbitrary in design.   Efforts to keep pedestrians away from traffic greening partnership photoswithout consulting on where residents actually needed pedestrian routes simply resulted in people using the grass verges or crossing the roads at sometimes dangerous points rather than following official paths.

Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at the work and legacy of the Wester Hailes Partnership Group which oversaw an ambitious programme of development for the area.  Part of its strategy included improving local green spaces and addressing a number of environmental issues affecting the area including pedestrian routes, roadside footpaths and increasing the number of trees and plants in the area.

In 1990 the Sentinel devoted a double page spread to the Greenway Improvement Scheme.  Forming the pedestrian “backbone” of Wester Hailes, it  was supposed to be a 20th century Royal Mile for the area, linking housing with local facilities and services.  But lack of investment and minimal maintenance had led to the route being underused due to concerns about safety.  Public consultation had shown that the top priorities for improvement were lighting, repaving and new planting.  Plans for upgrading the route included new junctions and focal points as well as redesigning the paths.

This scheme was one of a number of environmental projects that were aimed at improving the area in particular through creating more distinctive accessible green spaces that linked neighbourhoods rather than separated them.  The Wester Hailes Land Use Unit reported on progress in the 1992 Representative Council Annual Report.  Environmental improvements included roadside and boundary planting aimed at “greening” Wester Hailes and developing a plan for roadside footpaths.  Over the next couple of years an extensive planting programme was put into action resulting in thousands of additional plants and trees for the area.

greening column picThe Land Use Unit also developed a proposal to employ an Urban Environmental Ranger.  This proposal was submitted to the Urban Aid panel with the application being successful.  This project was the first of its kind with the Ranger engaged in a variety of projects with local children and young people.  The Ranger worked with schools and neighbourhood councils encouraging local residents to become involved in litter picking, planting and other environmentally focused projects.  A Wildlife Club for children was also established for children to learn more about the environment through games and activities.  A regular column Environmental Outlook written by the Ranger featured in the Sentinel for several years during the 1990s.

wildlife club

Is Wester Hailes now greener than it was?  With Spring finally arriving, now would be a good time for residents to judge for themselves.  Last year the increased use of tarmac in the area was raised at a Wester Hailes Community Council meeting with concern being expressed that trees and shrubs are being cut back or removed and replaced by areas of tarmac as have some areas of grassland.  The issue is not clear cut however, with some residents indicating that they preferred this to overgrown shrubs and the associated issues such as rubbish and blocked paths.  Yet with so much work and investment over the years being put into developing Wester Hailes’ green space it seems a shame that this might now be in danger of being reduced.  Last year the City of Edinburgh Council published a report, the first of its kind in Scotland that estimated the value of Edinburgh’s trees in absorbing carbon dioxide, thus reducing pollution.  The 600,000 trees across the city are estimated to have an economic value in removing airborne pollution of around £2.3 million.  Announcing the report, Paul Wheelhouse, the Scottish Government’s Environment & Climate Change Minister commented

“Urban trees, together with community woods, parks and green spaces are the lungs of our Capital.”

The trees planted back in the early 1990s in Wester Hailes are playing their part in reducing pollution.  Hopefully, they will be able to carry on this role for a long time yet as well as bringing a wealth of other environmental benefits to the community.  In 1993 the Environment Outlook column explained that many of the newly planted trees were native Scottish species, trees that would have been growing in the area if the land had not been cleared.  As shown below, the column gave information about the trees and some of the folklore associated with them.

greening column  trees


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.


Officially launched in 1989, the Wester Hailes Partnership was a government-led initiative intended to implement a strategy for the long-term regeneration of the area. It brought together representatives from the community and the public and private sectors to plan for and carry out these changes. Under the banner: “Wester Hailes – Full Of Potential”, the Partnership aimed to achieve a major transformation to the estate by the end of the 1990s.

The key elements of the strategy were identified as being: 1) Housing – in particular, to widen the types and tenures of accomodation available and to improve the physical environment; 2) Land Use & The Environment – to use available land to create more jobs, more low-rise housing and more attractive open space; 3) Training & Unemployment – to reduce unemployment and raise incomes, and 4) Wester Hailes’s Image – to dispel misleading and negative images of the estate.

Full of Potential

The Partnership’s Board of Management was made up of local councillors, senior officials from a range of bodies (including the City Council, Scottish Homes, Lothian & Edinburgh Enteprise Ltd, the Employment Service and Lothian Health) and five community representatives. It was chaired by a senior civil servant from the Scottish Office and met around six to eight times per year. However, much of the more detailed and complex work was handled by a range of policy sub-groups which were chaired by community representatives. In addition, the Partnership had a small staff team to support the Board and its sub-groups.

The the immediate programme it set out for itself in 1989 were challenging and included:

* Replacing most of the high rise flats with new low-rise housing;

* Building two new industrial/commercial estates;

* Creating an outdoor sports centre;

* Enhancing childcare provision;

* Widening the opportunities for employment training and adult basic education.

As part of its public launch, the Partnership made much play of the enormous potential of the area: like the fact that it was located next to the large established industrial estate at Bankhead; close to “the fastest growing development area in Edinburgh” – i.e. the Gyle; and that its communication links were very good – a railway station, an adjacent motorway bypass and an airport only a short drive away.

Next week, we’ll examine to what extent the Partnership was able to deliver on its promises and how much of the potential of Wester Hailes it was actually able to unlock.

Standing Stone of Wester Hailes

Have you ever taken a closer look at the stone monument outside Murrayburn House?  It was originally erected in 1972 to mark the start of the building of the Wester Hailes Centre.  When the area was refurbished to create the town centre area and Plaza, the stone was badly damaged.  Fortunately, it was rescued when it became apparent that this was an important part of the history of Wester Hailes.  The sculptor Kenny Munro was commissioned to design a new monument that used what remained of the old.  He used brass strapping to fix the pieces together, creating a saltire across the front.  The stone was then unveiled by Eric Milligan, Lord Provost as part of the official opening of the new Civic Square. 

 On one of the bands you will see the inscription “Wester Hailes Shopping Centre April 1972, and on the other you will see “West Side Plaza December 1996”.  The damage caused to the stone could be seen in the longer term as resulting in something more symbolic being created, connecting the old to the new and showing that regeneration doesn’t mean throwing out all that went before.  You can read the story as reported in the Sentinel by clicking here on January 1997.

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Wester Hailes Farm

It’s well known that Wester Hailes was built on farmland that had remained unchanged for centuries before the city of Edinburgh finally encroached upon it.  Even in the 1960s, when building was starting to profoundly change the landscape, it was possible to see what the area had originally looked like. 

We had someone looking for photos of the old Wester Hailes farm contact us via the Face book page last week to ask if we had photos of the farm that we could upload.  By the time the Sentinel came into being, the farm was long gone so there are no photos like this in the archive.  But we have come across a site Sixties Edinburgh, which provides several great pictures of the farm.  You can see the photos here at Wester Hailes Farm  .

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Last month we reported that Wester Hailes Community Council had taken the lead in re-opening negotiations with AWG, the owners of Westside Plaza, to make more space available to improve the proposed pedestrian link between the new Healthy Living Centre and the Plaza. Now it looks like this has paid off big time.

The Community Council had written to AWG to raise the issue and ask the company to consider allowing more of the Plaza car park to be set aside in order to accommodate an extended link which would be safer and more user friendly for those accessing the Healthy Living Centre on foot from the main shopping area. There was a quick and positive response from AWG and a meeting was held between representatives of the company and the Community Council to take the matter forward. As a result of this, we understand, AWG are now prepared to grant permission for a larger area of the car park to be utilised although the exact details are still to be worked out.

Not only that, as a direct result of a public meeting requested by the Community Council, it also looks like the extra funding needed to construct this extension could be about to be put in place by the City Council. Responding to a request from the Community Council, a joint meeting of the two local Neighbourhood Partnerships was held recently and it was clear from the debate which took place that people felt the existing plan was inadequate to meet the needs of the community. The City Council has taken the strength of local feeling on board and the matter will be discussed by its Finance and Resources Committee on July 31st with a view to agreeing how this additional work can be financed.

Hopefully the next time we report on this it will be to say that the extended and the improved link is definitely going ahead. But, whatever the outcome, the Community Council has demonstrated over the last couple of months just how influential a committed local group can be when it comes to having a positive impact on big issues affecting the community.