Wester Hailes at 50: Fighting old stigma helps create a real community

Secondary pupils work with the 'latest' Apple II computers at the Wester Hailes Education Centre (WHEC) in October 1980/ Chief Inspector Scott Richardson.
Secondary pupils work with the 'latest' Apple II computers at the Wester Hailes Education Centre (WHEC) in October 1980/ Chief Inspector Scott Richardson.
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There is a romance in the camaraderie of residents throughout the scheme that lies in the worst percentile in Scotland for income, education, employment, health and housing.

Ranked as one of the most deprived communities in Scotland and carrying a negative stigma often attributed to it by outsiders – the Wester Hailes community is still proud of who they are and how they got here.

READ MORE: Wester Hailes at 50: How dereliction and drug addiction turned the dream sour in the 1980s
As the Berlin Wall fell, so to did the high rise flats of Wester Hailes, in what was to be the beginning of a new era for both areas in 1989.

Wester Hailes underwent a massive regeneration in the 90s and early noughties which saw the opening up of the Union Canal along with the introduction of the ABC cinema, state-of-the-art library and bingo hall – all intended to improve the quality of life and amenities available to its residents.

An integrated Healthy Living Centre sprang up in 2013 and has since been a source of pride for the Scottish Government as well as residents and its staff.

The centre is seen as a shining example of what can be achieved, and Holyrood ministers have brought foreign policy makers just how it functions as a one stop shop that includes third sector agencies, health and social care services all in one place.

Many local residents have raised concerns that the first round of regeneration has been disintegrating before their eyes and fear the possibility of a gradual slide back to the bad old days.

However, the future’s looking bright again after the Wester Hailes Community Trust and its partners were granted just under £1 million to renovate the dilapidated public spaces that exist in the scheme.

The aim is to introduce green areas at the Civic Square and a public cycleway going both north and south along Wester Hailes Road.

The newly proposed regeneration – when coupled with the wonderful work of third sector agencies in the community like, Wester Hailes Arts for Leisure and Education (Whale) – means that the future continues to feel positive.

Whale works in the community with local residents involved on the board and in all board decisions. It tries to offer an educational environment that benefits those in the Wester Hailes area who need it most.

READ MORE: Wester Hailes at 50: How a field of dreams turned into a concrete jungle
The Whale arts centre opened in 2000 at Westburn. It is home to the resurrected Digital Sentinel – the original Wester Hailes community newspaper – and has also offered opportunities for local kids to perform Indian dance at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival as well as to have their artwork showcased later this year at the Scottish Parliament.

Leah Black, chief executive of Whale Arts said: “Local people are proud of the area and we will continue to act as a conduit between our community and creative opportunities, building on the good things that exist already in Wester Hailes.

“Our Creative Placemaking project provides a range of community-led activities and events across the seven neighbourhoods of Wester Hailes, including the recent 50th Anniversary Community Walk and our upcoming Doors Open and Explorathon Day and Wester Hailes Open Art Exhibition. We want to empower residents, workers, artists and designers to continue to provide solid evidence that creativity can drive social change, building on strengths rather than deficits or weaknesses.”

A feeling you get from local residents is that although buildings may come and go, the general comradery and togetherness has always remained, and that the area has mostly recovered from the drug scourge of the late 80s and early 90s.

Patricia Tait, 77, who stayed in the prefab homes on Wester Hailes Road in the 1940s but still attends “Stitch’N’Time” at the Whale centre, said: “I remember it when you used to walk to the farm for your milk on a Sunday and we had a party in the farmers field for the Queens coronation.

“Then we left the area before my mother moved back in 1972.

“It had all changed then. However the people never did.

“We never had one spot of bother the whole time my mother lived here. Neighbours were always helping and looking out for one another.”

Nonetheless, the cycle of poverty and addiction has proven difficult to break for some local residents.

Tam Harnsborough, 69, who has spent 35 years working with families affected by drug use in Wester Hailes, said: “I am beginning to see the children, and sometimes the grandchildren, of people I have worked with in the past. It just feels like drugs are more accessible now and we are beginning to treat alcoholism in the same way as drug use for the first time so resources can become stretched.”

Commenting on repeated failed attempts to end the scourge of readily available drugs and cheap alcohol, he added: “The minimum alcohol pricing just has not yet seemed to work in this community. Some still manage to break that cycle of poverty and addiction but not as many as we hope for.”

Chief Inspector has seen Wester Hailes in all lights

Chief Inspector Scott Richardson has worked in Wester Hailes for ten years.

Climbing through the professional ranks from constable to sergeant, and then from Inspector to Chief Inspector, the 52-year-old has seen the neighbourhood in all states, and still maintains that there is nowhere he would rather be.

CI Richardson said: “There is a real feel-good factor about improving life in the community. We carry out our work through a multi-agency approach that involves all relevant parties in the area. It is amazing to be able to pool resources and be better positioned to help people by pointing them in the right direction.”

Crime figures overall are on the decline in the south west of Edinburgh and CI Richardson firmly believes it feels as though the area is improving year on year with regards to crime.

He said: “We have an officer who works closely with the schools and we also look to get in ex-offenders to try to relate to the types of experiences kids in this area might face.

“We have had a lot of success doing so.

“There is a real feeling that residents want to shake the negative stigma given to the area in the past, so they work with us regularly in keeping us informed and aware of the problems they face.”

Your Say

The Evening News spent time in Wester Hailes as Community Reporter Jacob Farr took a sample of residents’ thoughts on the area today.

“We get plastered with a reputation from the outside that is not representative of the area. It has been cleaned up a lot and certainly is not the rough area it used to be. I used to live in the high rise flats that are now demolished and all I can say is the folk have your back here. The area has changed so much that many folk own their own home and we do not have the same issues we had with employment in the Thatcher years.”

Heather Martin, 63

“It has been absolutely no bother living here. It looks a lot better now with the redevelopment work and the new housing is of a much higher standard.

“The one thing I have noticed is that the shopping centre is a ghost town. It used to be buzzing but with the Gyle opening and Hermiston Gate we just don’t get the same access to shops. It would be nice to see the centre return to its former glory.”

Jim Farm, 63, left

“When I first came here I thought ‘Oh my god get me out of here’. But to be honest, once you get to know the people and they know you it all becomes very friendly. I hear from others that it is a lot safer and more secure now especially in the shopping centre.”

“It has not changed a lot but it seems easier to get drugs now. Sometimes you can even get offered them when you are stepping off the bus. But it definitely feels safer nowadays”

Patricia, late 20’s, and Sharon, mid thirties, VIP’s Barbers at Westside Plaza

“I love it here, it is a great place to stay. I came here in 1989 when it was a bit rougher but it is a lot better now. There is more of a multicultural mix but everyone just gets on with it and supports one another. I will say that the area around the shopping centre has changed a lot visually but for the better and you cannot grumble with the bus services.”

John Carty, 71, left

“It has been good and bad. I have had lovely neighbours but you would not chose to live here. It feels like whenever we get anything nice it just gets destroyed.

“Although, Mr Anjad, who owned the small local shop in Clovenstone retired after 46 years.

“The whole community came out to applaud him off on his last day. I remember thinking it was a very nice gesture.”

Lorraine Alston, 61