From There… To Here

The social history of Wester Hailes

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We All Must Play A Part


Whilst the Sentinel was a community newspaper focused on local issues and neighbourhood news, it also had an impressive capacity to look beyond the immediate area at major national and international issues.  People in Wester Hailes were encouraged not only to know about what was happening in the wider world, but also to understand how their views and actions could affect people living thousands of miles away.  In the week when the world gathered to mark the passing of Nelson Mandela, it seems fitting to highlight the efforts the Sentinel made to highlight the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

In July 1985 it carried an interview with Donald Kitson who had just been released after 20 years in prison where he had been jailed for his political activities against the regime.  He discussed the power sanctions had in affecting the existing regime and highlighted efforts being made by shop assistants in Dublin who had gone on strike after refusing to handle South African goods.  You can read the article in full here.

tambo picIn October 1985, the paper published an extensive interview with Dali Tambo, son of Oliver Tambo who was the president of the ANC at the time.  He brought a clear message to the people of Wester Hailes, asking for their support and explaining how their actions could make a real difference.  He asked local residents to support sanctions and to lobby their local MP to ask for their support.  The Sentinel re-iterated these comments, pointing out that “We all must play a part”. You can read the interview in full here.


Bus stopped

Bus to RestalrigPublic transport is one of the issues re-appearing in the Sentinel across the years, demonstrating its continuing priority for people living in Wester Hailes.  Pictures of local buses put up on the Facebook page always attract comment as people document memories and stories associated with bus travel.  The sprinter buses in particular are remembered with fondness!  But the popularity of the images also points to the fact that for many people in the area, buses were their only source of transport.

In 1983 only a quarter of the local population owned a car and were therefore reliant on bus routes.  This often required a detailed knowledge of bus times, and for some residents a long walk to reach a stop.  The report Ten Years On commented

 “In an area the size of Wester Hailes, certain neighbourhoods are obviously going to be worse off than others.  On top of this the estate is primarily designed for the private car and many areas are inaccessible to buses, so quite long walks to and from the bus stops are often necessary.”

Local interest in bus routes and timetables remained high, leading to Sentinel coverage whenever a route was introduced or altered or when a route was stopped.  In 1993 Hailesland East Neighbourhood Council organised a public meeting to discuss and debate the bus service or lack of bus service for the Hailesland/ Murrayburn/ Dumbryden area.  They were keen to lobby their local Regional Councillors to try to get the 30 route re-instated as was reported here.

Bus stoppedLater on that year, the Sentinel highlighted that in the blaze of publicity surrounding the new multi million pound Gyle Shopping Centre, there had been little consideration given to how residents from Wester Hailes would get there if they used public transport.  This was of particular concern to people who had managed to get jobs at the new site.

In 2000, First Bus withdrew their popular C5 service, leading to a reduced service for Clovenstone.  The Sentinel report highlighted the difficulties this caused, particularly for residents who found it difficult to walk to routes and stops further away, or the other side of busy roads.

Bus services into the city centre have improved over the years with frequent timetables and weekend and late night provision.  However, the issue of travelling round the area, or travelling to other neighbouring communities remains more problematic.  The community has had to fight to retain services such as the 18 and the 20, enabling access to the Gyle, Asda and the Royal Infirmary.  Now the community council is concerned that the public transport links to the new Healthy Living Centre, due to open next month, will not be suitable for people who find walking difficult.  It is frustrating that despite all the years of campaigning for better public transport routes, the local community is still not included in decision making processes when designs are being considered for this aspect.  If they had been, they would have been able to point out that the 30 whilst running near to the centre does not have stops close enough for people with limited walking ability, particularly if you are on the out of city route.  The community council has therefore organised a special meeting to look at this issue and to see if a proper solution can be implemented to ensure that the new centre is fully inclusive. The meeting is on Wednesday 14th August 6pm at the Wester Hailes Library.  Representatives from Lothian Buses and councillors will be there.

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Food For Free?

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about the distribution process here.

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

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

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

For more information about the 1987 EEC distribution in Britain:

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

Crisis In Print

Back in 1986, the Sentinel ran a special feature on an on-going dispute that had caused 6,000 people to come out on strike and would result in 1,262 people being arrested over its duration.  Following on from the miners’ strike, it is remembered as one of the most bitter and violent disputes in British Industrial history.  On the 24th January 1986, nearly 6,000 newspaper workers went on strike following the collapse of talks on News International’s plans to move its editorial and printing operations to a new plant in East London at Wapping.  The Wapping dispute escalated swiftly with the striking workers being dismissed and the move to Wapping going ahead using newly employed staff, leading to mass demonstrations.  Whilst newspaper owners such as Robert Murdoch were keen to present the issue as powerful print unions trying to hold back technological progress, others saw it very much as an attack on the existence of unions and the rights of workers.

The Sentinel tried to include a balance of national issues alongside local reporting, and also recognised that some of the issues affecting the press at a national level could have implications for local journalism.  And it also encouraged local residents to feel that they still had a voice and could take practical action to influence national decision making.  So in April 1986 it published interviews with two union representatives: Brenda Dean from SOGAT (Society of Graphic and Associated Trades) and Harry Conroy from the National Union of Journalists.

brenda deanBrenda Dean wanted to point out that the unions were not against new technology and that SOGAT had wanted to move into Wapping.  However part of the new deal for workers was changes to working practices, no- strike clauses etc.  For SOGAT she said, the dispute was fundamentally about

 “Our members’ right to belong to a trade union of their choice, to be democratically represented and to negotiate about their terms and conditions of future employment and their future job prospects.”

You can read her interview in full here.

Harry Conroy was dealing both with Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell as theHarry Conroy general secretary of the NUJ.  In a more wider ranging interview he discusses the press in Scotland as well as the concern that the Wapping dispute is an attack by Mr Murdoch on the ability of trade unions to represent their members.

 “All we’re saying is that as an employer, he should behave by certain standards.  And he certainly isn’t behaving by our standards.”

He also shares his memories on producing a community newspaper back in 1973 when he published the Pollock News and then helped with the Shawlands News.  You can read his interview in full here.

Sentinel officeAs well as keeping people in Wester Hailes informed about what was going on, the Sentinel tapped into the campaign to boycott News International publications.  The Rep Council had already voted in favour of approaching Community Enterprises to ask that the community owned Carousel chip shop stop selling the Sun, News of The World and the Times until Murdoch agreed to sit down and negotiate with the unions.  Sentinel readers were urged to use their spending power to send a message by refusing to purchase Murdoch papers.  Local residents gave their views here.

Despite a sustained campaign of demonstrations, News International did not lose a single night of production during the strike.  Just over a year later, the strike was fading and the unions were facing bankruptcy and court action.  By 1988, all national newspapers had followed Rupert Murdoch away from Fleet Street to the newly-developed Docklands, and adopted new, cheaper computerised printing technology.  Part of a larger political landscape that sought the demise of trade union influence and power, those standing against Wapping found little support or sympathy from those in government.  With the huge expansion of media sources online and its up to the minute accessibility, the era of print journalism is facing a less certain future than ever.  Looking back from recent events there are some commentators who suggest that what Wapping should really be remembered for was the advent of a much closer co-operative relationship between government, police, lawyers and some newspaper owners that could be said to have led all the way to the phone hacking scandals.

Polling Direct Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards Peace

“At the moment we are constructing a society of militarism, of secrecy, of nationalism, of injustice and of profitability…”

As well as covering local issues, the Sentinel tried to look outwards bringing a wider context and global issues to the attention of people living in Wester Hailes. In 1984, one of the major concerns causing much debate and controversy was the issue of nuclear disarmament.  The resurgence of the Cold War during the 1980s had galvanised opinion on the pros and cons of nuclear weapons.  The Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament saw a sharp rise in membership and found new alliances in the promotion of its cause.

In 1984, Monsignor Bruce Kent the General Secretary of CND, came to Edinburgh as a guest of the miners at their Gala for Peace.  The Sentinel were able to secure an interview with him the day before the miners’ gala.  He talks about the issue of the miners’ strike, the myths around nuclear power, the importance of creating a new society based on genuine community and the need to spend money on social welfare rather than social destruction.  He also had words of encouragement for the newly formed CND group in Wester Hailes saying “never lose heart”.

You can read the whole interview here at Sentinel August 1984.


Action Success!

Sentinel October 1997

We’ve been following the progress of the debate over pedestrian access to the new Healthy Living Centre that is currently under construction in Wester Hailes.  It became clear to local residents last year that access to the new centre had not been designed as fit for purpose, relying on an existing underpass that was not fully accessible for anyone with a disability or for parents with pushchairs.  The story has been featured in the blog as the fight to improve this underpass is not a new one, dating right back to 1996 when it was partially blocked, forcing everyone to use steep stairs to continue using the underpass which was simply not an option suitable for everyone as this story in the Sentinel showed. 

 Despite community efforts at the time to have the underpass improved, it remained in this state until this year.  However, the arrival of the Healthy Living Centre required improved access routes.  Although the planners had designed a potential solution, it was within a restricted space and seemed unsatisfactory to local residents who felt it was inadequate to meet the needs of the community.  The Community Council pushed for new negotiations with the owners of the Plaza over the use of car parking space.  They also asked for a public joint meeting of the two Neighbourhood Partnerships to look at other possible options and to ensure that local councillors and council officers heard the views of the community directly.  And they publicised the meeting thoroughly to ensure people knew the meeting was taking place.  It was clear from the high attendance and from the views expressed that an alternative access proposal was wanted by the community.

 The City Council recognised the strength of local feelings over the issue and relooked at the proposals.  At last week’s community council meeting, local representatives heard that the matter was now due to go to a full Edinburgh City Council meeting where the expectation was that a new proposal would be approved in full.  This would ensure that the underpass had proper pedestrian access through a straight low gradual slope so that it would be suitable for all abilities and needs.  Without the efforts and persistence of the Community Council it seems unlikely that this would have been the end result.  It’s great to know that Wester Hailes still has a strong voice and the ability to influence decisions that affect the community.