From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes


TEN YEARS AFTER

It was originally intended that the Wester Hailes Partnership would have a lifespan of 10 years, and conclude operations in 1999. However, under the section headed “What Remains To be Done”, the 1997 Partnership report recognised that there was a “considerable regeneration task remaining” and announced that its work would continue on until 2002.

Here we are, just over ten years on from that, a good point at which to assess whether or not the Partnership wrought any fundamental changes to an estate which had struggled from the outset with housing, socioeconomic and environmental problems and to ask to what extent it succeeded in bringing lasting benefits to the lives of the local residents.

The extended 1999 – 2002 programme was to be driven forward under the aegis of a new development strategy entitled “Maintaining the Momentum”. This was published in September 1998 and talked rather grandly of “enhancing and entrenching…the development of innovative, community owned and managed service delivery agencies” while its vision statement identified “economic vibrancy” and “an empowered, active” local community as key objectives.

As has been noted in previous posts in this series, unemployment and the local economy were areas in which the Partnership had struggled to make any significant headway. Nevertheless, the 1997 report was bullish about the future. In particular, it highlighted a new flagship initiative, the Westside Training Agency, which had just been launched to provide training and improve access to employment. It also anticipated further job creation through “a range of commercial and leisure developments” on vacant land at Wester Hailes Park and Drive.

However, even before “Maintaining the Momentum” had been published, the Westside Training Agency had collapsed, after less than six months in existence, due to the discovery of what the Sentinel reported as “financial irregularities”. Also, one of the main achievements trumpeted by the 1997 report, the Greenway Centre, a purpose built leisure and civic centre, survived only until 2003 when it closed because of financial difficulties. The lease of the building was bought over by the Wester Hailes Land & Property Trust who converted it into office space to let.

The commercial developments at the Park and Drive never happened. Various schemes which were mooted never came to fruition. Part of the site was eventually redeveloped for housing while the greater part lay empty and derelict for m0re than 15 years and is only now being partly redeveloped as a Healthy Living Centre. While this is a very welcome development and will provide new, modern facilities to serve the local community, it is also something of a misnomer as the majority of the floorspace will consist of City Council offices occupied by relocated staff and will not create a significant number of new jobs within Wester Hailes itself.

The 1997 report spoke of the the Wester Hailes Rep Council as being “one of the most sophisticated local democratic structures in Britain – from neighbourhood through to estate-wide management”. And yet, by 2002, the final year of the “Maintaining the Momentum” programme, the existence of this lauded institution was being called into question following an independent evaluation which concluded that it had become overly bureaucratic and had lost sight of its original objectives. It celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2007, but only three years later voluntarily dissolved itself following withdrawal of funding the previous year and having had to make all its staff redundant. In addition, as a direct consequence of this, most of the Neighbourhood Councils who made up the grassroots structure of the the Rep Council went out of existence.

The demise of the Sentinel, latterly the West Edinburgh Times, had preceded this in 2008, also as a result of the withdrawal of funding, and after 35 years in existence. That same year, the Tesco store in Dumbryden closed after nearly three decades and relocated to Hermiston Gait despite efforts to get the company to redevelop land adjacent to the Wester Hailes shopping centre (could this be the only recorded case of Tesco actually moving out of an area?). In the context of these losses, it is hard to see “Maintaining the Momentum” as being anything other than a horribly ironic title for the culmination of the Partnership’s 13 year long efforts to transform and revitalise Wester Hailes.

Nor do statistics suggest that anything was achieved in tackling employment issues. Through 2002 to 2008 unemployment remained well above 20% in Wester Hailes (around 30% in Clovenstone and Dumbryden) as against an Edinburgh figure of under 10%. In other words, there was no discernible improvement (in fact, actually an increase) compared to the rate at the start of the Partnership, while the gap between Wester Hailes and the city as a whole had remained as large as ever. Furthermore, since 2004, according to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, none of the data zones that make up Wester Hailes have moved out of the worst 15%. The majority remain in the worst 10%, over half in the worst 5% and, in terms of the key indicators used to measure SIMD, employment is the one which has fared the worst.

It cannot be denied that a great deal was achieved in terms of housing and the environment. The vast majority of the multi-storey blocks, containing the worst accommodation, was demolished, transforming the skyline of Wester Hailes. In many cases, these monstrosities were replaced with lower density housing which was much more popular with local people. Hundreds of existing homes were completely refurbished. A greater variety of housing tenure was created and people started moving into the area to buy the new private housing which was on offer. The general environment was improved and Wester Hailes, to this day, remains significantly greener in its physical aspects compared to many similar peripheral estates built after the war. The canal was re-opened after a gap of thirty years, partly thanks to the efforts of the community and the Partnership, and remains another enduring asset.

Nevertheless, huge amounts of money were poured into Wester Hailes during the 1990s – to the extent that it got the nickname “Treasure Island” – and the underlying issues of poverty and deprivation have remained, more or less unchanged, up to the present. Most of the initiatives designed to tackle these problems had little real impact and quickly faded away along with the vision statements, high ambitions and bold promises that characterised the rhetoric which surrounded the Partnership. Wester Hailes is still, as the Partnership proclaimed at the outset, “full of potential” but, sadly, insufficient momentum was generated and maintained across the board and much that made this a special community has been lost along the way.

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REALIZING THE POTENTIAL – HALFWAY THERE?

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.


WESTER HAILES – FULL OF POTENTIAL

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.


REHOUSING THE CAPITAL: THE CRUSADE AGAINST EDINBURGH’S SLUMS (PART FOUR)

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.


REHOUSING THE CAPITAL: THE CRUSADE AGAINST EDINBURGH’S SLUMS (PART THREE)

In the third part of Rehousing The Capital, Pat Rogan shares more stories about slum life in the Edinburgh of the 1950s, how he publicised the atrocious conditions to which people were subjected and, in particular, how the emblematic Penny Tenement disaster kick-started a major programme of slum clearance. 

…While answering queries from constituents, I was often asked to visit families where the parents were illiterate, but were anxious to lodge a housing application form. I would procure a form, fill it in for them, and then would deal with any subsequent correspondence; so their privacy was respected. It was my custom to visit these constituents on a Sunday morning, so that I could explain matters to them directly. One Sunday, while going my rounds, I entered a fairly dark tenement, and, following my usual custom, I knocked on the door of the house I was visiting, shouted my name, turned the handle (no locked doors in these properties) and entered. Instead of meeting the family I wanted to see, there were three men in the house, standing around a table covered with bottles of whisky and cartons of cigarettes. I then remembered I had heard, earlier that morning, that a local pub had been “turned over” the previous night. Before I had the chance to say anything, one of the men said, “Och, it’s only Pat!” Another said “Do you want a bottle of whisky?” I asked about the family I had called to see, and were informed they were in another house upstairs. Fifteen minutes later, when I came downstairs, the loot, and the culprits, had gone!

In my efforts to speed up slum clearance, I approached our Planning Department, and to my disgust learned that no action in Holyrood Ward, my ward, was contemplated within the next twenty years. Then one night, when I was having a chat with a reporter from one of our two local papers, I recounted to him some of the miseries endured by my slum-dwelling constituents. He was interested, and very soon stories began to appear about the hidden face of Edinburgh, and the citizens who were compelled to live in repulsive conditions. Before long, the rival Edinburgh paper approached me, and from then on, I supplied both papers with horror stories that highlighted the obscenity of our slums. The publicity embarrassed the ruling party in the Council, and culminated in a “Panorama” programme, revealing the slums, which featured a little girl talking about the mice that ran over her feet when she was preparing for bed. Festival-conscious Edinburgh was outraged, and plans were made to provide more money for the housing rate fund contributions, and so accelerate the housing drive. This assistance was very welcome, but not enough!

However, help was on the way, and it arrived in a most peculiar fashion. I mentioned earlier that there were many properties in Edinburgh that had been abandoned by their owners. Such was a tenement located in Beaumont Place, within my ward; its owner, a Mr Rosie, refused to carry out repairs, and, when pressed to do so, offered the tenement to the Town Council for the sum of one penny. Thereafter the property became known as the “Penny Tenement”. One night, towards the end of 1959, I was called out to the Penny Tenement because the occupiers were alarmed about a bulge which had appeared in a gable wall. As the hour was late, I advised them to remove themselves and their belongings towards the middle of their houses, and I would inform the City Engineer first thing in the morning. Around four o’clock in the morning, I received a call (from a priest who was returning from a sick call) that the gable had collapsed. Fortunately, the injured were few, but the tenement had to be evacuated, and temporary accommodation provided. This near-disaster received wide publicity, and again focused attention on Edinburgh’s slums. I may tell you that, at that time, a rather shocking story went the rounds in Edinburgh that I was seen running away from that tenement with a pick and shovel!

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. During this rapid movement of families, we unearthed many social tragedies that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. In the Dalrymple Place area, we found two young women and their babies living in a cellar, their bedding being mattresses on the stone floor. They earned a living by street-walking, each mother taking it in turn to look after the babies while the other one went to work. An old man was found living in a house that had been closed some time previously. He was unable to fend for himself, and he depended on the help of another old man to keep him supplied with food, and an odd bottle of beer.

As a result of this movement, debt collectors were given a sore time. At first the Corporation supplied the collectors with the new addresses of the debtors, but this was soon stopped, no doubt much to the delight of many families. Furniture removals were undertaken by the Town, vans and lorries from the Cleansing Department being pressed into service. The Lord Provost, as with all his predecessors, had his own benevolent fund, built up over the years to a sizeable sum. Because of the sudden upheaval to their lives, a number of near-destitute people came to me for help, and the Lord Provost responded most generously.

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 identifying 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 ajudicate when necessary over disputes regarding their stability…

Copyright: Pat Rogan


REHOUSING THE CAPITAL: THE CRUSADE AGAINST EDINBURGH’S SLUMS (PART TWO)

This is the second part of the text of a speech given by former city councillor Pat Rogan to a housing conference in the 1970s in which he recounts his battles to transform Edinburgh’s housing conditions.

In the first part, he explained how he came to be elected a councillor; his shock and dismay at discovering the true extent of the squalor and distress of slum life; and the reasons for the proliferation of these slums in the centre of the city.

In the following section, he tells of the struggles people faced to cope with the slum conditions; the lengths they went to in order to try and find a better home; and his dealings with Council officials – some sympathetic, some not.

(N.B. To fully appreciate one of the stories, you have to know that No! No! Nanette was a popular musical comedy film of the 1940s.)

…But there was one loophole in the regulations, and it was exploited deliberately, but legally. At that time, if one was foolish ehough to find a room and kitchen, or a single room, no matter how cramped and uncomfortable, and without proper facilities, one was then considered to be housed, in the view of the Council, and then had to wait until the house collapsed or was chosen as being unfit for human habitation. On the other hand, if one was clever, and instead of house-hunting, took refuge with one’s parents, or found furnished accommodation, then one was regarded as “homeless”, and shot to the top of the queue, although the living conditions were much superior to those enjoyed by the slum dwellers. This anomaly I placed repeatedly before the Finance Committee, but it took a long time before they appreciated the unfairness of the letting system, and amended the regulations, to give those living in unfit houses a better share of the new homes being built.

Private house-building was restricted because vital materials were earmarked for municipal work, the only exceptions being the conversion of large houses into flats, but here too I suspected valuable materials were diverted from local-authority schemes.

But 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 trades 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. This move proved worthwhile, but meant the removal of contractors who were not big enough to assume control. A list of subcontractors had to be submitted and approved, before the main contractor could employ them.

At that time, the housing section of our Health Department was controlled by a man named James Robertson,who for many years had worked in that department, and had a tremendous knowledge of Edinburgh’s slums. Pre-war, he had supervised many slum-clearance schemes, but his efforts were now blunted until such time as the removal of unfit houses could be renewed. But he proved himself useful in other directions, especially when measuring houses where valuable points could be gained by the occupants for overcrowding. Where he felt the need was urgent, and a family should be rehoused as soon as possible, his measuring tape would shrink, and the dimensions he submitted would ensure the early removal of a suffering family. I called on his help regularly when severe cases of overcrowding were brought to my attention, and he responded magnificently. When discussing housing with him, he often spoke to me about one of his predecessors, a Mr Allan Ritchie, who defined a slum as “Darkness, Dampness and Dilapidation”. I have not heard a better description, unless one adds the word “Despair”.

The slums of the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, which had been festering from pre-war days, were truly hideous, and, in addition to the general discomfort, the families who occupied them had to contend with infestations of vermin, as well as regular outbreaks of dysentery. A pamphlet was issued by our Health Department, advising slum-dwellers how to control dysentery by the use of disinfectants, which included wiping down the toilet cistern chain after use. One bewildered woman, whose brass chain had long since gone, asked me, “How do you disinfect a piece of string?” “Burn it!” I replied.

Every Thursday night, I and my two ward colleagues held a surgery when around fifty people would turn up, the majority to plead for help in getting a house, or to ask us to find out the latest position of the house waiting list. It was always the womenfolk who turned up at these meetings. In many years as a councillor, I don’t think I met any more than a dozen men seeking help with a housing problem. The stories from these anxious wives and mothers were desperate and heart-rending, and the more often I heard their sad tales, my frustration and anger rose accordingly.

As an example of their desperation, a young woman came to see me one evening, accompanied by a toddler, and obviously she was expecting another child. She explained that she lived in a single room on the top flat of a run-down tenement, and, because of the badly designed staircase, she had difficulty in moving her pram up and down the steps. But that day she had been in Tron Square (a small housing scheme off the High Street, built after the First World War), when she noticed a certain house with boarded windows. If I could arrange to have the windows repaired, she would undertake, free of charge, the cleaning of the house, before accepting the tenancy. Her offer – and she was aware of the circumstances – left me speechless, because the house in question had been the scene of a brutal double murder about a year previously. A man named Robertson had just been released from jail, and returned to the house in Tron Square, where he met his wife and two teenage children. Almost immediately he attacked, with a knife, his wife, and killed her. His young son, trying to escape through the window, was also killed, but fortunately his daughter, although injured, managed to escape. Robertson was tried at the High Court in Edinburgh and, on the 23rd of June, 1954, he was hanged at Saughton Prison. He was the last person in Edinburgh to be executed. I took the woman’s case to our house-letting chief. He too was astounded at her courage had the house repaired, cleaned and painted, and granted her the tenancy.

Not all house-letting officials were so understanding. One such was a fellow called Connette, and he, like an army quartermaster, acted as if he owned the houses. One could approach him on behalf of a homeless family, and tell him the most harrowing tale, the kind of story that would bring tears to the eyes of a traffic warden, but his reply would invariably be, “No, sorry, councillor, but the answer is no, no.” Eventually he became known as “No! No! Connette”. As an answer to obstinate officials, a special sub-committee of three senior councillors was set up, whereby councillors could plead their case when they were dissatisfied by an official’s ruling. I took full advantage of this concession, and appeared regularly before this sub-committee…

Copyright: Pat Rogan


REHOUSING THE CAPITAL: THE CRUSADE AGAINST EDINBURGH’S SLUMS (PART ONE)

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