The making of a problem estate
Wester Hailes was constructed on the south-western edge of the city in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is about ten kilometres from the city centre. The 116 hectares site was developed by the local authority who constructed 5 000 houses, homes for an estimated 17 500 people. The housing was mainly two-bedroom flats. There were 26 ten-storey flats (which accounted for 33 percent of the homes) and lower tenement-style flats (66 percent of the homes). There was also a shopping centre and schools. However, the new tenants were soon complaining about a lack of shops, social facilities, and the poor public transport links into Edinburgh’s city centre.
There were also complaints about the houses themselves, notably about dampness, poor sound insulation and heating systems, harling falling off exterior walls, loose roof tiles, leaking balconies and localised flooding.
The local authority was soon letting flats to students, as the area quickly got a negative reputation. The population was 16 021 in 1981, but by 1991 it had fallen to 11 148. Two of the high rise blocks of flats were demolished in the 1980s. By 1988, 15 percent of the flats were vacant.
A major regeneration initiative
In 1988 Wester Hailes became one of four large peripheral housing estates to be part of the UK government’s “New Life for Urban Scotland” initiative. The “New Life” project ran for ten years. It was a strategic, long term initiative that sought an integrated approach to social, economic and physical regeneration of Wester Hailes. Over £140million was spent, most of it on housing. A key part of the underlying philosophy was that in principle the area could attract private investment, and that a significant change in tenure could be achieved which would resolve the problems.
The regeneration sought to create the conditions where housing and labour markets would work “normally”. Instead of 95% of tenants renting their flats from the council, most of the households would become owner-occupiers. The “right to buy” their social housing had been popular amongst tenants living in older estates with conventional family houses. However, less than 5% of tenants in the flats in Wester Hailes had exercised their “right to buy”.
The project involved the demolition of 18 of the remaining 10-storey blocks of flats. The idea was that this would free up land for private house builders to develop. Such companies could get grants to cover the difference between the selling price (which would be depressed by the unpopularity of the area) and their normal commercial return on the houses they were building.
Improvements were also made to some of the other flats, and there was also landscaping and environmental improvements. The shopping centre was given a make-over and a multiplex cinema was developed next to it.
The idea of public-private partnership was fundamental to the approach. A Partnership Board oversaw the whole project. Central government (the originators and funders of the project) were represented on the Board, along with several agencies of central government (e.g. bodies responsible for health services, economic development and training). Local government and the private sector were also on the Board, as were five community representatives. The day-to-day work of delivering the regeneration was carried out by a Project Resource Team that consisted of 14 full-time staff.
Conflicts within the partnership
The private sector did not take a very active role, and there was nobody seconded from the private sector to work in the Resource Team. Although the regional and local (Edinburgh) councils were involved, not all of their departments assigned high priority to the project. For them, Wester Hailes was just one area amongst many.
There were also sharp disagreements between the community representatives and other partners. The community-based Board members argued that more priority should be given to education, health, leisure and social welfare. They contested the level of owner-occupation proposed by other partners. They saw themselves as advocates for the interests of existing residents, while other partners saw their own role as being to change the composition of the estate’s population. The tough negotiating stance of the experienced and well-resourced community organisation frustrated, even intimidated, some other partners, particularly at Board meetings which were open to the public to attend.
Before and after
The situation at the start and at the end of the New Life project is summarised in the table below.
|Total housing stock||5997||5097|
|Houses for rent owned by the local authority||5697 (95%)||3262 (64%)|
|Houses purchased by tenants under the “Right to Buy”||270 (4.6%)||967 (19%)|
|Houses for social renting from a Housing Association||6 (0%)||612 (12%)|
|Owner-occupied houses (including flats bought through the “Right to Buy”)||294 (5%)||1223 (24%)|
|Unoccupied housing units||15%||2%|
|Households with incomes of <£100 per week (in 1994 equivalent prices)||48%||51%|
|Residents with no qualifications||56%||51%|
So why were the results not better? The “softer” aspects of regeneration (education, health, housing management) were given less focus and priority than the physical treatment of the housing and environment. However, “churning” and housing turnover were also significant. It seemed that many people who did get into jobs during the ten years that the project ran moved out of Wester Hailes - and were replaced by new households moving in who were poor and unemployed. For example, in three of the remaining six high-rise blocks, turnover of tenancies remained high, and new tenants were often young and homeless and facing a range of other challenges. Of the households who moved into Wester Hailes between 1988 and 1994, 87 percent were taking up tenancies of Council houses, and only 32% of these household heads were in paid employment, while 26 percent were unemployed.
Less houses were built for sale than had been anticipated, and some sites where high rise blocks had been demolished lay vacant for many years. However, the research I have done found that in general the new private sector houses in the area have seen stronger price rises (in percentages, not in absolute terms) than the overall Edinburgh average since 2001. There has continued to be a slow take-up of the right to buy.
According to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, since 2004 none of the data zones that make up Wester Hailes have moved out of the worst 15 percent within Scotland. The majority remain in the worst 10 percent, over half in the worst 5 percent. In terms of the key indicators used to measure the SIMD, employment is the one which has fared the worst in Wester Hailes.
Regeneration takes time. A public-private partnership does not guarantee that investment will flow into an area. If the community are involved they may have different priorities than those of the official agencies or private sector partners. It is important to understand the interaction between housing markets and labour markets. Housing-led change is not enough – a more holistic approach is needed.