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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THANKS FRASER!

On 14th July 2008, in a corner of Wester Hailes Library, a small group of people met for the first time. This informal get together had been organised by Fraser McAllister, one of the Library staff, to discuss the setting up of a local history archive.

Following the closing of the Wester Hailes Representative Council earlier in the year, the Library had become home to what remained of that organisation’s written records and photographs. Also, not long before, the West Edinburgh Times had ceased publication and the paper’s extensive archive, including that of its predecessor, the Wester Hailes Sentinel, had been transferred to Prospect for safekeeping.

Taken together these materials amounted to a treasure trove, documenting in tremendous detail, the social history of the area stretching back over thirty years. Fraser had called the meeting to put forward the idea that these collections should be catalogued and digitised and then a web site created to maximise access for anyone who wanted to study them and find out more about the Wester Hailes’s past.

As can often be the way with new ideas, there was a bit of a slow start but once things got properly into gear, groundbreaking projects followed one after the other. First, it was this blog, then the From There To Here facebook page, followed by the Wester Hailes codebook with its social history walks (courtesy of Eoghan Howard and the local Health Agency), and the Digital Totem Pole. And that’s not the end of it. Currently, as readers of this blog will know, plans for interactive wall plaques incorporating QR codes; and the establishment of a Digital Sentinel – an online successor to the old Sentinel – are also well advanced.

Unfortunately, staff reorganistion meant that Fraser was with us for a too-short time before he had to move on. Nevertheless, he was one of the key figures in those early days when we were still finding our feet. His enthusiasm helped kick-start something that turned out to be much bigger than I think any of us who attended those early meetings could ever have imagined. Thanks Fraser.


OLYMPIC FUN

A final word on the Olympics. This year’s sporting jamboree in London has been widely praised as one of the best ever. In particular it’s been credited with bringing the fun back into the occasion. So, it seemed like an appropriate opportunity to reprint part of the Sentinel’s  Barcelona 1992 “GO FOR GOLD” Olympic Fun Special .

Here’s three tough looking nuts. Number 1 definitely wins the hairstyle prize…

Find the 12 Olympic events hidden in this none too testing little challenge… 

And here’s a chance to increase your trivia knowledge (you never can tell when obscure stuff like this might come in handy at a pub quiz)…


FIRST CHAIRPERSON

Sheila Bunt was Wester Hailes Community Housing Association’s first Chairperson and is still, today, a very active committee member of Prospect. In conjunction with the official opening of Walkers she was interviewed by the Sentinel for its regular “First Person” Q&A feature. 

As the Sentinel noted, Sheila was already well known to more than a few Wester Haileans through her job behind the bar at Club 85. In the Q&A article, reproduced below, she lifted the lid on her worst habit, favourite book and favourite food and drink. As well as that, she shared her forthright views on men and officialdom and revealed a propensity to collapse in a heap.


Pages From The Past

Today we’re back in 1992, 20 years ago this week.  The main story is the improvement work starting on Wester Hailes Drive.  Other stories include

  • The launch event for WHALE
  • A protest about changes being made around Wester Hailes Park
  • An exclusive interview with Gerard Kelly
  • News from around the neighbourhoods including the Woods Gala Day
  • Some strong views about the forthcoming Olympics in Barcelona, and the effects of money and fame on the games!

You’ll find all these stories and more here Sentinel July 1992.


THE REP COUNCIL – A LITTLE BIT OF HISTORY

Included in the Sentinel’s two page spread on the occasion of Rep Council’s 20th anniversary was a potted history covering the growth of community-led initiatives in Wester Hailes leading up to and including the Rep Council itself.

Interestingly, it would appear that what happened at the start had, by that time, more or less faded from the collective memory. The Sentinel pinpointed 1973 as the year when the first Wester Hailes wide organisation was set up: “existing tenants groups amalgamated into Wester Hailes Association of Tenants (WHAT) and campaigned for better services and improvements to housing“.

In fact, WHAT was set up as the result of a public meeting in December 1970 and pre-dated any other tenants groups. Subsequently, as the construction of the estate proceeded, smaller groups representing the individual neighbourhood areas (seven in all) formed and affiliated themselves to WHAT.

Also missing was any reference to WHAT’s successor, known locally as Scooby Doo, which came into being when the Social and Community Development Progamme (SCDP) was set up, funded by the UK Government and the EEC. Scooby Doo was the local advisory committee established to help decide how this money was spent throughout Wester Hailes. It included representatives from each of the tenants organisation and became the main focus for the community’s efforts to get better facilities supplanting WHAT which disappeared from the scene (for a lot more information about these early days see our blog article YOU NAME IT, WE HAVE NOT GOT IT!).

After 1973, the next years highlighted in the Sentinel’s history were 1977 – when community workshops, precursors of the “huts”, were built and 1978 – which saw the formation of the Wester Hailes Urban Regeneration Programme Action Committee (have a go at saying that three times quickly!) the successor umbrella group to Scooby Doo.

Then, in 1981, came the birth of the Rep Council:

“The Wester Hailes Representative Council is formed to provide a united voice for the community of Wester Hailes. Four forums are set up to co-ordinate action on Local Facilities, Housing, Youth and Media. Voting representatives from the existing community groups meet monthly to discuss estate wide policy and instigate action.”

By 1983, the Rep Council had gone “from strength to strength” with many more initiatives begun and the membership has grown to “over 30 locally constituted groups”. And then, in 1987, a new, expanded democratic structure was put in place:

“The Neighbourhood Strategy begins with the development of Neighbourhood Councils. The intention is that these would be locally accountable committees of residents pursuing their own workplans for physical, social and cultural improvements in the area.”

Come 1992, there were twenty six Neighbourhood Councils each with a voting representative at Rep Council meetings and elected spokespersons linking up with other projects and partnerships.

Over these twenty years the Rep Council, building on the efforts of its predecessor organisations, developed a highly sophisticated participatory framework and demonstrated a track record of innovation and sustained development. It brought together the local groups working to make Wester Hailes a better place and provided a forum for open debate and the formulation of strategic, community-driven policies. Will we ever see its like again?