Wester Hailes at 50: How dereliction and drug addiction turned the dream sour in the 1980s

Police in a graffiti-strewn hallway in a bleak block in Wester Hailes in 1993.
Police in a graffiti-strewn hallway in a bleak block in Wester Hailes in 1993.
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In a little over a decade, Wester Hailes went from being gleaming new villages in the sky, to becoming referred to as ‘Waster’s Hell’. So, what went wrong?

It’s fair to say that Wester Hailes has suffered image problems down the years. Its estates are somewhat haunted by bad memories and harsh social stigmas propagated by outsiders who have never set foot there.

Children watching the old Westburn blocks of flats being demolished in 1993.

Children watching the old Westburn blocks of flats being demolished in 1993.

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

Created as a cure to fix Edinburgh’s social housing ills, there had initially been so much to remain positive about in Wester Hailes. Populated by around 18,000 people, many of them young families, the district was up and coming in the late 1970s.

A shopping centre had been built, there were play areas such as the Venchie (which resembled something out of Mad Max), frequent gala days and parades, and each estate had its own community hubs.

A secondary school – the Wester Hailes Education Centre (WHEC) – went up in 1978 – Her Majesty The Queen would even pay a visit – and for a while the future looked rather rosy.
However, things soon began to take a turn for the worse as the estate approached its tenth birthday.

At the start of the Thatcher era, unemployment in the UK rocketed to levels not seen since the Great Depression.

Council estates were among the most susceptible to this bleak new economic reality and Wester Hailes, the largest housing development built in Edinburgh since the New Town, was up there with the worst affected in the entire UK.

A quick crunch of the stats reveals unemployment in 1980s Wester Hailes was around three times higher than Edinburgh as a whole, with a massive 29 per cent recorded as economically inactive by the end of the decade.

On top of the mass unemployment, the estates were becoming associated with high levels of crime, as well as alcohol and drug dependency.

And a new scourge was born in the late 1970s. Cheap heroin from the Middle East flooded the UK drugs market.

For reasons that have never been fully understood, Edinburgh’s users took to injecting the Class A substance rather than smoking it.

This would have dire consequences in the following decade when AIDS began to rear its ugly head.

READ MORE: Wester Hailes at 50: These 24 photos show the very early days of Edinburgh's Wester Hailes

Heroin use in Wester Hailes, as in many other areas in Edinburgh, became widespread and led to the creation of one of the Capital’s first community-based drug services, WEST, in Wester Hailes in the mid-1980s.

At one point in the early 1990s, more intravenous drugs users in Edinburgh were dying from AIDS than from overdoses.

Susan Dalgety, former Sentinel editor, former councillor and activist in Wester Hailes, said: “I brought up my two children here, I loved the place – or to be more accurate, I loved my friends and neighbours. The built environment was less appealing. The planners had designated two car park spaces for every flat, based on a theory that each household consisted of two adults in full-time work. But there were no pavements, only dingy under-passes.

“Nor had they envisaged the Thatcher years. Unemployment became the norm, single-parent households, as ours was, replaced the nuclear family, and cheap heroin flooded the local market. Young men and women, who ten years previously would have been apprentice printers, hairdressers and joiners, became junkies.

“Then, in the mid-1980s, the first HIV diagnosis among Edinburgh’s drug users was made, and Wester Hailes, along with our sister estates of Craigmillar and Pilton, were quickly caricatured as a living hell.”

Community newspaper the Wester Hailes Sentinel launched a Say No To Drugs campaign, while the city as a whole was being referred to as the AIDS capital of Europe – not a moniker festival-friendly Edinburgh wished to project to the world. Another issue for Wester Hailes residents was the quality of their homes. Less than a generation since they had gone up, many of the high rise blocks in the area were already showing signs of decay.

Plagued by maintenance issues and under investment, scores of buildings which had been intended to last a lifetime would be earmarked for demolition.
A number of blocks, particularly in Westburn and Hailesland, came toppling down in 1993.

Combined together, all these various issues painted a bleak future for Wester Hailes. Out migration was tremendously high, with successful types desperate to escape the estates. Affecting the job prospects and general self confidence of those left in Wester Hailes, the “Waster’s Hell” stigmatisation would prove challenging to shake off.