Inside the first new council houses in decades

Lynsey, John and Max enjoy their new kitchen
Lynsey, John and Max enjoy their new kitchen
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They were great, hulking behemoths – “streets in the sky” built in 1962 and heralding a new dawn for city residents used to living in decaying slums.

Yet in October 2009, it took only seconds for schoolboy Robert Millar to flick a switch and reduce the three Gracemount tower blocks to rubble.

Yesterday marked a new chapter for the area, and Edinburgh, as one family was officially handed the keys to its brand new flat – the first council home to be built in the city for a generation and the first of 1400 scheduled for construction as part of the city council’s 21st Century Homes programme.

Lynsey Carmichael, 34, and partner John Mouat, 36, together with nine-year-old Max Mouat, his sister Taylor, 14, and Zola, the family dog, are the delighted occupants.

“The first thing that struck us when we came to view was just the amount of light and the space,” remembers Lynsey. “It was fantastic and I remember that everything seemed clean and new.

“What clinched it for us was the kitchen and dining area – again we were really struck by the light and the space, and the double doors leading to the balcony.”

The flat’s kitchen is certainly bright and spacious, containing a washing machine and tumble dryer, fitted kitchen units, and a fridge freezer. A large, glass double door leads out on to the six by two-metre balcony.

The room already has a “lived-in” feel. A guitar leans against one wall – John, a chef, reveals he practises regularly by the dinner table – while on a window sill a statue of Buddha gazes serenely down at the worktops where the family has already been preparing meals from scratch.

“Yes, we’ve had quite a few family meals around the kitchen table already, with John being a chef and everything,” laughs Lynsey. “And I’m quite looking forward to attempting to cook.

“The kitchen just makes it really homely, somewhere we’d actually want to spend time as a family.”

The family’s journey to their brand new home hasn’t been without twists and turns.

Lynsey says they had to stay at her mum’s for a while before renting private accommodation at Colinton Mains. In only a matter of months, however, they had been given notice to quit by the landlord.

The family then lived at the Castle Rock Housing Association development at Moredunvale for 11 years before making the move to Gracemount.

It seems the wait has been worth it. Made of light-brown brick, the flat boasts three bedrooms, a toilet and a shower room, in addition to the kitchen and dining area.

The ceilings are high, adding to the sense of space, while a wide wooden staircase, freshly varnished by John, connects the lower and upper floors.

Although the colours are neutral and the walls not to be touched for a year – “it’s to let the paint breathe,” says Lynsey – the family has successfully added personal touches, from the Hearts posters adorning Max’s bedroom wall to the artificial fire feature next to the dining table. There are storage cupboards dotted throughout the flat, as well as individual cupboards built into each room.

“We aimed to construct the flats to an exemplar standard,” says Ross Young, development manager at 21st Century Homes. “We took the regulations from the local area planning and building warrant and rather than just meet them we tried to exceed them.”

Mr Young points to increased levels of insulation and air tightness, which will reduce running costs for tenants, as key features marking the flat’s readiness for 21st-century family life. As well as state-of-the-art ventilation systems that will extract damp air from the flat interior, each home will have six square metres of personal storage.

Mr Young says the new properties have been built to last thanks to the quality of materials used and the ability of the flats to respond to changing personal circumstances.

“We’ve designed these flats so that they are able to meet variant needs,” he says. “The walls can be knocked away or adapted to meet the needs of a wheelchair user, for example.

“It’s about future-proofing homes. If I move in with my family and something happens to me or one of my family members, the council won’t need to find me a new home. The house can be easily adapted to accommodate new needs as they arise.”

Mr Young says community consultation was central to the planning process. “The neighbourhood groups we spoke to expressed a wish for brick, which is durable and will be much easier to maintain in the future as it’s really a robust material.”

Lynsey and her family are certainly happy with the results. “The housing association flat we had in Moredun was a new build, so it was also very clean and new, but it was a lot smaller,” she remembers. “It was much more cramped. The kitchen was very small, we could put a table and chairs in and nothing else.

“Our bedroom was like a box room. You couldn’t have two people getting dressed in the room at the same time – it made getting ready for nights out a nightmare.

“We used to have really bad problems with damp as well. I think it was because there were so many bodies cooped up in such a small space.

“There are not really any houses looking on to us. We’ve got a lot of privacy here,” she adds. “In our old place we were right beside the high flats and you couldn’t really sit outside as people were always looking down at you.

“And it was really windy,” says John. “The high buildings funnelled the wind through and it wasn’t nice being outside. It’s a lot more sheltered here and you’ve got a nice view out.”

Paul Edie, the council’s housing leader, who yesterday handed the keys for the new property to Lynsey and her family, says the new development marks an important phase in the long history of council house building in Scotland.

“There have been various developments in house building over the years,” he says. “Of course, there was a big surge in the 1920s and 30s, and the 1950s, after the wars.

“Then again, in the 1960s, there was a shift to moving people into tower blocks on the edge of the city and demolishing the older buildings. It was seen as a great move at the time but in retrospect it’s not been seen as a positive development.

“They were seen as ‘streets in the sky’ but no-one’s building them any more. They weren’t great for energy conservation, For example, which made them extremely expensive for tenants.”

Councillor Edie says his grandparents and father all lived in local council housing and had no complaints. “The properties they lived in were solidly built and set the standard for the time, and they’re still seen as desirable properties,” he says.

“The quality of materials used was great. They were built to last and I don’t know why council properties stopped having that sort of longevity.”

He says the lessons of the past have been learnt. “We’ve taken a pragmatic approach – it’s all about quality. The council buildings of the 60s and 70s have not stood the test of time.

“Quite simply, the buildings going up at Gracemount will look fantastic because of the quality of the construction. The materials we are using and the technology we’re using will ensure these buildings do last.”

For Lynsey and family, the flat offers the chance of a new future. “It just feels so homely for us,” she says, “like a brand new start – we’re all really happy.”

Better than life in slums

COUNCIL house building in Edinburgh, and across Scotland, was driven by a shortage of hundreds of thousands of homes in the early 1940s as the Second World War drew to a close and the birth rate surged.

Existing housing in Edinburgh, along with that in Scotland’s other cities, was in a shocking condition, with centres blighted by overcrowded, decaying slums. The housing boom which followed dominated construction in Scotland for decades afterwards.

Even before the war, city authorities tried to shift populations to green-belt suburbs such as Pilton and Sighthill. Then, in the 1940s and 1950s, massive municipal schemes such as Muirhouse, Craigmillar and Niddrie were built. Economically-built estates and tower blocks – of which the Gracemount buildings were a famous example – sprang up in response to the demand.

But the new buildings soon disappointed. Schemes went up too fast and the lack of available materials meant the condition of buildings quickly started to deteriorate.

The Cruden Homes development at Gracemount is part of 21st Century Homes, the first new programme of council house building in Edinburgh for a generation.