How Scotland’s first community land buyout changed lives for the better

The National, by Lesley Riddoch


In the mid-80s, thousands of council tenants in Drumchapel, Easterhouse, Pollok and Castlemilk took the brave decision to buy out their run-down tower blocks, tenements and low-rise flats from Glasgow City Council – effectively making them Scotland’s buyout pioneers.

In 1988, the community of West Whitlawburn in Cambuslang joined the gang.

Now, taking over ownership and management control of 640 flats is a tall order for any community. But Cambuslang is in the top 5% of impoverished areas listed by the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, which means tenants in the 1980s had the highest levels of unemployment, chronic ill health and the lowest levels of literacy.

The flats themselves were in a terrible state with water penetration, dampness, broken heating systems, badly fitted windows, no security and leaking verandas. When there was an east wind in the winter, the tenants froze. When they made complaints at the Housing Department they never met the same person twice and had to traipse in 10 or 12 times about the same repair. It was almost easier to thole the problems.

But, inspired by their neighbours in Glasgow’s massive housing estates (once described by Billy Connolly as “deserts wi windaes”) the community of West Whitlawburn decided they could do better than the council. And they’ve been proved right.

Landowners Glasgow Council had been given £6.6 million to refurbish the run-down estate on the city’s southern outskirts, so hopes amongst the tower block tenants were high.

But the council spent the repair money on the easier-to-fix low-rise blocks of East Whitlawburn instead. Outraged, the tenants’ association in the west opted out and set up a co-operative to own, improve and manage their 640 high-rise homes.

It wasn’t an easy decision.

At the start, residents were hesitant. Sixty per cent voted to transfer away from council control – but for former Boilermakers’ Union shop steward and early co-operative leader Phil Welsh that wasn’t enough.

“We were terrified. We’d never done anything like this in our lives. We knew we needed to take control of our ain hooses but we needed mair people to back it wholeheartedly. So we went around and harangued them for a month. Thirteen per cent more folk voted yes the second time. That was good enough.”

In fact, Phil, along with nurse Muriel Alcorn, two shop assistants, Susan Stevely and Isabel Dunsmuir, and two retired men, Bobby Inglis and Frank Gallagher, put their local reputations on the line to create change.

Without this team of well-connected, street-credible community leaders, West Whitlawburn would still be a failing estate like its council-controlled eastern neighbour.

But still, change wasn’t easy. For lifelong socialists and believers in state provision, “going private”, even though it was actually “going co-operative”, instinctively felt wrong. The Tory Westminster government of the time wanted to break up council housing and was offering grants to communities ready to opt out of local authority control. The politics stuck in the throat of socialist Phil Welsh who chaired the first West Whitlawburn Housing Co-operative;

“We really had no choice – either we kept living in unacceptable, deteriorating conditions or took control, took a risk and bid for housing grants tae run West Whitlawburn as a co-operative and build an attractive, peaceful and high-quality place to live – we plumped for the second option.” Phil had a vivid description of how it felt to lead one of Scotland’s first community buyouts in one of its most deprived neighbourhoods: “The first cheque I ever signed in my life was for £2.2 million. Weird, because I only had ten pence in my pocket at the time. One day we were tenants, the next we were the landlord.”

And a landlord with a difference.

The canny steering committee read Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy legislation and noticed it didn’t apply to fully mutual housing co-operatives. So that’s what they became – one of just nine in the whole of Scotland. The fully mutual co-operative structure means tenants can’t buy flats with huge discounts, so WWHC held on to its housing stock over the intervening decades – unlike most professionally run Housing Associations – and steady rent income helped them gather cash to build more homes. It meant something else too – genuine people power.

According to Phil, “people from miles away sit on a Housing Association board. Only folk from the neighbourhood sit on a Housing Co-operative. It was an opportunity to do things for ourselves.”

It paid off.

Personal contact replaced distant bureaucracy. Dampness, security and renovation were made priorities.

All homes were refurbished, an old school was turned into a healthy living centre and a team of concierges was hired to monitor 28 external and 185 internal CCTV cameras and 70 homes fitted with alarms.That eliminated most drug-dealing on the estate within months and saved 11 lives thanks to the swift response of the camera/concierge team. Elderly, disabled or vulnerable tenants could buzz down to the concierge base if they felt lonely, frightened or ill for a chat, basic health check or a cup of tea with company – even in the middle of the night.

THIS friendly support has been the saviour of local A&E departments, making a big reduction in the number of frail, older people admitted to hospital. And yet healthcare is not even a formal part of WWHC’s housing remit.

The co-operative refuses to turn these health successes into estimated cash savings. But the co-operative team know their higher-than-average management costs must be defended in straitened times.

So they’ve produced social accounts, which list the ways in which a well-managed, self-regulating community protects dignity and saves cash.

Meanwhile, the West Whitlawburn Housing Co-operative is the salvation of its tenants and the envy of its council neighbours, with an 18-month waiting list, energy charges frozen for the fifth year running thanks to a brand new green district heating scheme to tackle fuel poverty and multiple housing awards. But having outshone its council owned neighbours in the refurbished East, there is one final irony.

Last year South Lanarkshire Council decided to completely demolish all 300 of its expensively refurbished homes in East Whitlawburn, and has just announced its preferred Registered Social Landlord partner – West Whitlawburn Housing Co-operative. This surely is the ultimate accolade.

Phil Welsh died in 2015, but I’m sure he would be quietly cheering. Of course WWHC is still part of a very deprived community, but it’s got spirit, self-belief, decent facilities and above all a human and caring response to all the behavioural problems that come with endemic poverty.

In the last three decades, hundreds of Glasgow’s poorest people have blossomed from being powerless tenants on a run-down peripheral council scheme into members of a dynamic housing co-operative.

It’s puzzling this has never made much of a story for the Scottish media. It’s equally puzzling that Scottish politicians aren’t falling over themselves to get WWHC tenants on every available funding body to benefit from their wisdom.

It may be easier to read papers on empowerment produced by academics. But in housing estates across Scotland, tenants are doing it for themselves.