From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

Surfing Forward

Computer use

Wester Hailes has less than 50 years of history which means that long term trends evolving gradually over decades are not always reflected in the events and level of change within the community.  One area which is a definite exception to this is the fast paced development of computer technology and IT skills.  So much has changed so quickly that it can feel like we’re remembering a long bygone era when we look back at the size, shape, capacity and use of computers in Wester Hailes only a couple of decades ago.

ComputerBack in 1981, the Sentinel reported that the WHEC had a suite of four APPLE II micro computers for public use.  The micros had floppy disk drives, a printer and colour monitors.  As well as offering bookable slots, the computers were also going to be used to run short courses, including practical sessions on BASIC programming and an introduction to computer graphics.  You can read the article in full here.

By 1997, Wester Hailes was the first council estate to have an internet café, Cyberbytes Internet CafeCyberbytes, established by the Young Tenants Support Organisation.  As well as offering local residents access to computer training, the café provided cheap access to the Internet.  Although the Internet had been around since the late 1980s, it was still relatively difficult to engage with for many people particularly due to cost of use and a scarcity of computers within homes.  The Sentinel devoted its centre pages in April 1997 to explaining more about the Internet and its potential uses and benefits for local residents.

tech12 IT skills became increasingly important as essential requirements for work, and training courses started to reflect this.  In 2002, the new Learning Shop opened in the Shopping Centre and had 50 computers available for use.  Courses on offer included word processing, databases, spreadsheets, presentation graphics and the internet.

So if the Sentinel had still been around today, what would it have been reporting technology wise? WHALE IT suite Perhaps the rise of the smart phone and tablets, the power of Google or the explosion in use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter.  Online communication is now a routine part of life for the majority.  Whilst seeing images of now long outdated computers can make us realise how much has changed so quickly, the history of IT in Wester Hailes also shows the importance of trying to combat the digital divide.  For although access to IT in the present day is now widely available, it is by no means universal.  Digital exclusion still creates barriers and whilst sometimes this can be generational, the number of people facing digital exclusion is higher in areas where incomes are lower and more people are marginalised due to their circumstances.  The provision of IT training over the years and facilities such as the Cyberbytes café was in recognition that people within Wester Hailes were in danger of being left behind with regard to computing experience and skills.

Combating digital exclusion is now more important than ever as access to services moves increasingly online.  One of the current known facts about the new controversial benefits system Universal Credit, is that applications are to be made online.  For applicants who do not have access to a computer within their home, this will mean they need to book a computer at their local library, Job Centre etc.  If they are not confident in using IT, a 90 minute application process may prove daunting and in some cases impossible.  Wester Hailes led the way across the years with initiatives such as the internet café and the Learning Shop. Hopefully with new projects and resources, local organisations will still be able to ensure people in Wester Hailes gain the skills and support they need to get online.


Where to shop?

The debate over affordable food in the light of the horsemeat scandal has highlighted the issues surrounding economy food products.  Whilst everyone likes a bargain, many people purchase these products because they have fewer choices when it comes to price.  Economy burgers and supermarket own brand ready meals provide low cost options for those on a limited income and with a lack of possible places to shop, especially if they rely on public transport.  People currently living in Wester Hailes might well be concerned that economy value meals are being investigated for mislabelling but they might find they have fewer options when it comes to finding affordable alternatives.

shops 21It was often a struggle for people in the early days of Wester Hailes when it came to food shopping.  The original plans included avenues of shops throughout the area, but these ideas disappeared as commercial enterprise became involved.  Plans were agreed for an enclosed shopping centre but with the guarantee that no other shops would be built nearby to satisfy developer demands.  Even once the shopping centre was agreed, it remained unbuilt for several years whilst housing was occupied, finally being opened in 1974.

shops5At the time Ten Years on was written, the general impression given of the shopping centre was that there was now a good selection of shops including 2 supermarkets and 31 other shops including butchers, greengrocers, frozen foods, chemists and footwear.  In fact there were so many shoe shops that there was a local joke saying that people in Wester Hailes must be wearing out shoes quicker because of having to make the long journey to the centre!  The only other main supermarket was Tesco’s which opened in 1982 by Hailes Quarry Park.  Although it offered variety, its arrival was not unanimously welcomed.

shopping centre pic

In 1984 the shopping centre had a refit and was opened as the Forum by Lewis shops 20Collins, again with a good range of shops.  However, over the years, Wester Hailes has seen a marked decline in the number of shops selling fresh food.  In 1995, a fierce battle erupted when Presto announced it was closing with the potential loss of 70 jobs.  The owners of the centre went to court to force Presto to remain open, recognising that the centre would struggle without the draw of a supermarket.

The centre then underwent another set of developments as part of the town 14 plazacentre development with a new library, multi-screen cinema, bingo hall and a new District Council office in 1996.  However, this did not mean a greater range of food shops.  As new shopping centre developments elsewhere were launched, it was Wester Hailes that seemed to lose out.  Hermiston Gait and the Gyle Shopping Centre both offered large scale supermarket shopping, but only really for customers with cars.  If you rely on public transport, shoppingshops 22 at these centres is tricky and has to be planned out due to infrequent buses, or unhelpful connecting times.  Meanwhile, Wester Hailes was down to one supermarket and in 2008 gained a certain fame as the one place Tesco actually closed down in.

The lack of affordable food sources locally led to attempts to establish food co-ops.  With these being on a non-profit basis, it was possible to offer healthy fresh food at affordable prices.  Several food co-ops were launched in 1997 and the Sentinel Westburn Food Co-opprovided information about their development and progress.  They often had short shelf lives, finding it hard to be open for long enough to generate sufficient custom.

The last word should perhaps belong to Davie Wilson, writing in the Sentinel in 1996 during another food scare that gripped the press.  The rise of BSE had created huge levels of concern and beef sales had slumped.  You can read what was said about Scottish beef here.

WHOT Next?

The Wester Hailes Opportunity Trust opened the doors of its shop in the front of the Wester Hailes shopping centre in 1987.  It was established as part of a set of projects operated through the umbrella organisation, the Wester Hailes Employment Initiative.  WHOT was started in recognition that many people felt daunted by the idea of accessing training and/or further education to improve their employment prospects.  It offered local residents the chance to find out more about what they needed in terms of training and then supported them throughout the training process.  The funding, provided jointly by Lothian Regional Council, Edinburgh District Council and the SDA, enabled WHOT to have both link workers and 6 co-ordinators providing more long term in depth advice.  WHOT also provided crèche facilities so that parents were able to attend training without worrying about childcare.  WHOT celebrated its launch with an open day which you can read more about here.

Over the years WHOT expanded its work and its partnerships, creating a range of courses to assist people into work.  In 1990 as part of an advertising feature for the Wester Hailes Partnership, the success of a recent WHOT venture was featured.  Young people were offered the opportunity of training as Children’s Representatives for holiday companies which resulted in all 7 of those taking part being given jobs through the scheme.  The course was run in conjunction with Stevenson College and included both college work and work experience.  The feature can be read in more detail here.

Later that year the Sentinel reported that WHOT had received a major investment by BT which would be used to run a new course “Going Places” aimed at men over the age of 23.  The project had been trying to gain private sector backing and was delighted to have support from a major company.

In 1994, WHOT moved from the front of the shopping centre to a unit within the mall.  Its 1994-1995 annual report was circulated as part of the Sentinel.  The report showed the breadth of partnerships WHOT was working within including the Wester Hailes Training Fund, the Job Centre, Stevenson College and the WHEC.  Another major development were additional “satellite” points, bases within community organisations taking WHOT services beyond the Shopping Centre.  Funding at this stage was coming from the European Social Fund, Urban Aid, LEEL, Lothian District Council, Edinburgh District Council.

When WHOT was first established, it was at a time when there was very little provision for the local community in terms of employability development.  High unemployment was a continuing concern for the area with local residents struggling to succeed within the labour market.  During WHOT’s lifetime, a whole sector developed dedicated to supporting people into further training and/or employment.  The essential features of WHOT’s holistic service- a local presence, informal setting, tailored flexible training etc. have been adopted as standard by other local agencies.  In the current challenging economic climate, WHOT might have faced an upward battle: no amount of training will assist people into work if the jobs aren’t there.  But it is still remembered with affection by those who benefited from its help.

Unemployed Workers

In October 1980 the first Unemployed Worker’s Centre in Scotland was opened against the background of the highest unemployment figures since the 1930’s. It aimed to offer training and support but also had a remit around campaigning to highlight the effects of unemployment on both the individual and local communities. The Sentinel reported on the new centre in December 1980.

The Unemployed Workers Centres were a national network, set up predominantly through the TUC in response to the soaring unemployment rates. Established within a grass-roots model, they were able to be flexible and responsive to the situation of their immediate community. At the height of the movement, there were 200 across the country but funding remained an ongoing issue for many, resulting in a gradual reduction of active centres.

Wester Hailes opened its own centre in 1981, based in the TU Hut at the Venchie and reported on by the Sentinel in August 1981. Unemployment for the area was estimated to be over 50%, with young people facing a 70% rate. Like other centres across the network, it was run by unemployed local residents and had a programme of support, advice and campaigning. A wide range of activities was also in offer including the Unemployed Writers Workshop.

As in so many issues affecting Wester Hailes, it was the local community that tried to find solutions rather than the politicians. In 1983 the Wester Hailes Representative Council and Wester Hailes Community Enterprises Ltd joined forces to apply to the Manpower Services Commission for Management Agency status. This gave them the power to create up to 250 full and part-time jobs under the Government’s new Community Programme. The Wester Hailes partnership was only one of 5 voluntary bodies in Scotland to be awarded Management Agency status. You can read more about this story by clicking here on Sentinel May 1983.

The Unemployed Workers Centre sought to raise funding to build premises of their own. Premises for groups in Wester Hailes was an ongoing issue. There was no infrastructure of older disused buildings that could be renovated or converted. Every new premises required either had to be built or brought in as a unit from elsewhere. The Unemployed Workers Centre received funding from the Manpower Services Commission in 1984 and purchased two huts from Polkemmet School in Whitburn. The Sentinel reported on their efforts in April 1984. Sadly, the resulting centre ended up being demolished in 1986 after vandalism and fire had left it unsafe.

The term “unemployed worker” sounds almost old-fashioned in today’s current climate and seems to have fallen out of favour, with the term “workless” seeming the top alternative amongst politicians and sections of the media. A lot can be conveyed in a word and it is probably no coincidence that with the Welfare Reform Bill currently going through the Westminster Parliament, a word with arguably a more disparaging sound has become standard. The Unemployed Workers Centres were articulate in challenging myths and stereotypes about unemployment, recognising the inherent dangers in misrepresentation and the resulting isolation of whole sections of society. As Malcom Mcphee who helped set up the centre in Wester Hailes said to the Sentinel in 1981

 When you are unemployed you are treated like a second class citizen; the reason you are unemployed is because there is no work and not because you are another species.


In the current financial climate there is much talk about spending in shops being a barometer of economic recovery or further downturn – are people spending enough? do people have anything much to spend? So we thought it would be interesting, a bit poignant even, to take a look back at some of the adverts placed in the Sentinel to try to tempt Wester Haileans to part with their cash in days gone by.

From 1978:

Where have all the woolshops gone?

What a pair of fab chaps! Anyone remember having a stomp or a boogie to Footloos?

And what about these prices from 1981!

1981: Only women clean…

…And also from 1981 (a member of Prospect’s staff remembers this place well, he says it was the best chippie for miles around and it was always absolutely mobbed)