Martin Hannan: Sink estate that can turn the tide

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HAVE you been to Craigmillar recently?

Do you still think of it as some kind of decaying hellhole, a sink estate that went down the drain? Take a trip to the south-east of city and prepare to have your mindset considerably altered. If you haven't been there for some time no doubt you'll expect a concrete "desert wi' windaes'", as Billy Connolly once famously described Drumchapel in Glasgow, but instead you will find radical changes, not least with new and very good, well-designed, "green", sustainable, and affordable housing.

It's the tangible evidence that the Craigmillar regeneration project is well under way, with a community business centre alongside attractive housing areas occupying sites that were once blighted by municipal housing of a particularly brutal type – all of it gone, now.

For various reasons, last week I was asked to take three potential investors in housing in Edinburgh to areas where they might wish to try a new homes-based investment scheme. Coming from the west coast, they were gobsmacked when I suggested Craigmillar.

I have always had a soft spot for the place, because I've known plenty good people from Craigmillar. And whereas some of its leading citizens were no saints – Paul Nolan and David Brown are just two I could mention – they did fight like terriers to try and get things done for their area. Both men always said it would take a very long time to rebuild and renew Craigmillar, and say what you like about them, Nolan and Brown played their part in kick-starting the process.

My three businessmen visitors knew of its poor reputation but were at least willing check out its possibilities. Frankly, they were pleasantly amazed at what I showed them, and having been impressed with the Craigmillar Parc development in particular, the trio have gone away to work up a plan that I'm sure will make a difference to helping people get on the property ladder in Edinburgh.

That experience points up a problem I fear the area will suffer from, no matter how superb the regeneration project eventually turns out to be – and on the present evidence it's going to be very successful, in my opinion. My concern is that regardless of the new environment, people will still brand Craigmillar and neighbouring Niddrie with the same sorry old taglines as junkie-infested dumps for unemployable social outcasts, fleapits for the true underclass of this city.

That will be a great pity. I know there are still people in the area who don't quite buy into a self-improvement ethos, and that's putting it delicately, but their numbers are greatly diminished and the very fact that the new housing remains unvandalised tells you something.

Yes, there is youth crime, but show me any of the peripheral areas of the city, or for that matter Princes Street in a weekend afternoon, which does not experience the problem of feral children. I don't believe Craigmillar is now any worse than anywhere else in that respect, and it appears that community-based policing in the area is making its mark slowly but surely.

Many people have tried for years to improve Craigmillar's reputation. Chief among them was Helen Crummy, of course, who along with the Peffermill Mothers Group founded the Craigmillar Festival Society back in the early 1960s. Coming up to 90, I'm told she's still going strong and it's less than two years since she published her third novel.

I always loved the true story of how Helen was inspired to act after she asked the headmaster at the local primary if her son could get violin lessons, only to be told it was all the teachers could do to get the kids to learn their three Rs.

Her anger at this patronising answer inspired ongoing community projects that were famed across the world, people travelling thousands of miles to see what was going on. I remember a bunch of kids from a Los Angeles "barrio" getting on famously with pupils at Castlebrae, though it led to a bizarre scene where the Yanks were aghast that the Scottish youngsters smoked like lums, while the Craigmillar boys and girls couldn't believe that the Angelinos knew all about the workings of Uzi sub-machine guns. It was a clash of cultures, but the encounter showed that urban deprivation affects children everywhere, albeit in different ways.

It is for the sake of the young people of Craigmillar and Edinburgh in general that people must try to be more open-minded about the place. It will take a long time to rebuild Craigmillar physically, but sadly, I suspect it will take even longer for its former reputation to vanish.

There is some hope, however. The results of the Edinburgh residents' survey unveiled by the News showed that people in Leith are now more concerned about crime than people in Craigmillar.

In itself it's not a major finding, but it does indicate that people in Craigmillar are a bit more confident about life, and those who are moving in are bringing with them broader minds and positive outlooks. When Craigmillar was first developed in the 1930s, many in Edinburgh saw it as a beacon of hope for working people. I'm not suggesting that night happen again, but we should certainly stop knocking a place that is finally going places.