Wester Hailes at 50: How a field of dreams turned into a concrete jungle

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As the community of Wester Hailes prepares to celebrate its Golden anniversary this week, we wind our clocks back to a time when the micro-city of maisonettes and multi-storeys was nothing more than a series of pen strokes on a draughtsman’s drawing board – when it really was all just fields.

The concept of Wester Hailes was one born as much out of demand as it was out of necessity and it was originally intended to create 4,000 homes.

An aerial view of Wester Hailes in the 70s.

An aerial view of Wester Hailes in the 70s.

In the immediate period after the Second World War, it had become alarmingly apparent that Edinburgh’s decayed core of aged and dilapidated tenements was no longer suitable for human habitation, let alone as homes fit for heroes.

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Some of the worst examples were to be found in the predominately working class and high-density districts of Leith, the Old Town and the Southside, where hundreds of families were found to be living in cramped, squalid properties with shared wash facilities, limited access to hot or even running water and the ever-present threat of disease.

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Taking a look back on Wester Hailes 50 years on.

Taking a look back on Wester Hailes 50 years on.

With renovation of existing homes viewed as too costly an endeavour to pursue, an extensive slum clearance programme began in earnest, reaching its zenith during the 1960s.
Following decades of false dawns and propelled forward by the likes of Labour councillor Pat Rogan, a multitude of new residential estates began to spring up on the peripheries of the Capital.

But few if any were as ambitious in their scope as Wester Hailes, which would rival Castlemilk as being among the largest and most complex housing developments proposed in Europe at the time.

Wester Hailes itself was a mix of lush pasture and ploughed fields, punctuated here and there by smallholdings occupied by veterans of the First World War.

The large blank spaces occupying the maps of west Edinburgh provided the city fathers a gilt-edged opportunity to wipe the slate clean and create a bold and modern vision of living for the poorly-housed working classes. In 1964 the planning department unveiled its dossier for Wester Hailes entitled A Plan for a City Suburb, which would require the relocation of almost 300 acres of farmland and the construction of well over 4,000 homes.

Pauline Simpson, 57, was aged just five when her family moved from an uninhabitable tenement in Blackfriars Street to a brand new house at 78 Dumbryden Gardens.

Pauline Simpson, 57, was aged just five when her family moved from an uninhabitable tenement in Blackfriars Street to a brand new house at 78 Dumbryden Gardens.

Despite a spirited campaign by local residents to halt the development, the plans were eventually pushed through with a little white collared-nudge from then Scottish Secretary Willie Ross.

Architects Sir Frank Mears & Partners, a firm which had previously won the contract to redevelop Blitz-stricken Clydebank, were handed the task of designing Wester Hailes in 1966.

Progress was swift, and by September 1969, the first part of the development at Dumbryden was complete. The housing schemes at Murrayburn, Hailesland and Clovenstone would follow over the next half decade. Aside from the initial lack of shops, schools and community hubs, new tenants were thrilled to bits with their shiny new homes.

In time, schools, such as Dumbryden Primary and Wester Hailes Education Centre (WHEC), would appear, a community centre and eventually a large shopping complex would open, a hugely-popular adventure playground “The Venchie” would be constructed and regular gala days sound tracked by pipe bands and troupes of baton-twirling majorettes would be held to help to fuse the community together.

Iain Bell, 65, knows Wester Hailes better than most  because he helped build his future home.

Iain Bell, 65, knows Wester Hailes better than most because he helped build his future home.

Back in those early days, many considered Wester Hailes far less a concrete jungle and far more a serene, sodium-lit safe haven. And, for a while at least, it was.

However, the development now contained 500 more homes than had been originally planned for and there had been little delivery on the promenades, courtyards and lakeside views that had been promised during initial plans.

Adam Dudley, a former resident of Wester Hailes and now well respected architect, did his university paper in the 1980s on the problems of the social housing development. He stated that developers and planners failed to communicate properly throughout the construction process, leading to several issues and more often than not, the homes that were built soon began to decay.

Collaborative efforts by the community throughout the 70s and 80s saw the construction of community huts.

MEET THE FIRST TENANTS WHO MOVED ON TO THE ESTATE

PAULINE Simpson, 57, was aged just five when her family moved from an “uninhabitable” tenement in Blackfriar’s Street to a brand new house at 78 Dumbryden Gardens.

While she cannot be 100 per cent certain, Pauline – now an expat living in Sardinia – believes hers was the very first family to move to Wester Hailes.

“I just remember arriving there and it was a lovely, lovely house. There was gas central heating, there was a bath, there was our own bedrooms. But everything around it was just all farmland. There were just a few houses. It was basically a big playing field.

“It wasn’t too long after we moved in we got a next door neighbour and that was Brenda Senior ... then we got another neighbour Mrs Portrice. And we were the three there before other people started moving in. It was about a year later that a community started to form.

“None of us went to school because the school wasn’t ready.

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“It was fantastic. The times then as well they were different days, so it was very community-spirited. We got to know everybody as they were moving in. Everybody knew everybody else always look out for each other.

“As kids we played out nearly all the time. That was the most exciting thing. There was always somewhere to go. It was all just a building site. We’d go into the all the houses and go and play with all the construction stuff.

“It was the safest place to be. Nothing bad ever happened it was fantastic.

“The shopping centre, that was exciting, that was a big thing for Wester Hailes.

“The gala days everybody would be there. Everybody chipped in and did their part.

“My mum moved out in the late eighties. She felt the place was starting to go downhill and it was. In the early days it was a great place to be and it was safe. Everybody knew everybody.

“But around the late 70s it became overpopulated, drugs came in… then AIDS. Many of our friends that we grew up with from the very early days died of it; it was heart-breaking to see.

“There were these two tunnels to get to the bus stop from my house. It got to the point to where you had to walk the long way round because you were too frightened to walk through the tunnels. That’s how it changed. You didn’t feel safe anymore. Late 70s very early 80s was the definite time to get out of there.”

A STRONG COMMUNTIY SPIRIT

FORMER Tory Cabinet Minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind says there was already a strong sense of community in Wester Hailes when he was elected MP for the area just five years after the estate came into being.

But he saw problems too in the sharp contrast between such a large area of new council housing and established better-off neighbourhoods next door.

“I became MP for Edinburgh Pentlands in February 1974 and Wester Hailes was very much part of the constituency,” he said.

“There was a strong sense of community in what was a pretty large estate. There was a very strong sense of people saying they wanted to make this work

“And although people from outside the area thought of Wester Hailes as a single place, of course there were various parts to Wester Hailes – Calders, Clovenstone and so forth – and they very soon developed their own residential and community identity.

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“Wester Hailes Education Centre was an important part of the community too – it provided not only education for the kids, it was also a facility deliberately open to residents to be used during non school hours.”

He said people moving from overcrowded tenements often felt a nostalgia for the strength of the communities they had left. “The challenge for Wester Hailes was to create the same or better sense of community than in the much poorer housing that many of its residents had originally come from. There was a bit of excitement, this was a new venture they could help create – but there was also a slight nervousness because an estate that large could very easily have become lonely for a lot of its residents simply because of its sheer size.The minus side wasn’t the fault of the residents. You had this very big council estate cheek by jowl with Colinton and Craiglockhart, Currie and Sighthill, all of which were completely different communities.

“I knew right from the start I didn’t get very many votes in Wester Hailes but I found the community very vigorous and open-minded.”

MEET THE MAN WHO HELPED BUILD WESTER HAILES BEFORE MOVING ON TO THE ESTATE

IAIN Bell, 65, knows Wester Hailes better than most – because he helped build his future home.

Now an expat living in Norway, Iain worked on many of the flats as an apprentice joiner before going on to live there in the late 1970s.

And he is still astonished the buildings lasted so long given the construction materials and tools he and his work colleagues were made to work with.

Iain explained: “In 1971 I started on the flats at Wester Hailes as an apprentice joiner

“The build quality was terrible. The walls were lined with plasterboard. They had half an inch of polystyrene behind that. We didn’t have modern battery drills or anything like that, you just hammered the masonry nails in ... and they weren’t a great catch on the concrete, shall we say, so I kind of expected the walls to fall down. I don’t think they did.

“The kitchen cpboards, I remember there was one high level kitchen cupboard that was nailed to the wall and that was just two masonry nails battered in through a bit of wood on the back of it. They definitely fell off the walls.

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“I’m surprised they lasted as long as they did. Demolished in 1994, I think.

“That’s progress, they took people out of slums in Leith and other places and put them in Wester Hailes. It would have taken 100 years to create a slum in Leith but it only took 25 years to do it in Wester Hailes – progress!

“The block opposite was known as Vietnam when we lived there. There was that much trouble the polis were there just about every day. There was all sorts of s*** going on in that block.

“I built them and thought they were s***. Then I lived in them and I realised just HOW s*** they were.”

He added: “I actually spoke to the architect. I was working in the Scottish Arts Club in Rutland Square and I met the architect there and I had a few questions for him and he was not pleased, let me tell you.

“He was responsible for designing the double doors at the bottom of each stairwell. And I asked him why he’d designed them the way he had, because they were bloody impossible to open in a gale.

“He obviously didn’t have to live there. I think architects should be forced to live in their own creations. It might improve what they design.”

This is the first installment of a three-day series. Check back tomorrow for our next look back on Wester Hailes.