Decades in the Making: The Story of One Community’s Urban Struggle

This year marks 15 years since former Scottish Conservative party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, stood amongst the dilapidated buildings of Easterhouse, Glasgow, and bore witness to the poverty that its residents endured daily. Duncan Smith was not the first political figure to embark on one of these so-called “poverty tours,” nor was he the first to have ever graced Easterhouse. He was, however, the most affected one. Shocked by the level of deprivation that he saw, he was moved to tears and later, in what was famously dubbed his “Easterhouse Epiphany,” promised to reform the welfare state, a moment many critics and pundits have noted as the beginning of the end for true welfare reform.

Duncan Smith’s visit could have been a turning point for the deprived community of Easterhouse, but the area remains nationally well known, and not for the right reasons. The community still battles with serious and persistent social issues today, and struggles to shake off the confines of its past.

A map of Easterhouse and its boundaries. Picture provided by The Glasgow Indicators Project.

Constructed in the 1950s, Easterhouse was one of several large peripheral housing estates that were built around Glasgow in the post-war era. This historically notorious housing project lays six miles east of Glasgow’s city centre and has suffered from decades of socio-economic problems.

These peripheral housing schemes started off as a means to combat the overcrowding of the city and to accommodate more families. Part of the reason that they exist was that there was a sense that the city should be thinned out at the time and settlement should go to new towns. But Glasgow had different ideas. The city was keen to hold onto its population and to maintain Glasgow as a big city, and implemented a deliberate strategy to try to rehouse people from the old rundown inner city within the city boundaries. As a result, these peripheral estates were constructed quickly and were part of a political project for Glasgow to retain its influence, which came from its size.

This started to create several problems. In Scotland, a lot of post-war development was in the form of public houses and flats, and in comparison with the rest of the U.K., Scotland has had a longer tradition of people living in this style of housing. Easterhouse was built entirely with public housing and almost entirely as flats. It was built at a distance from the centre and built without initially there being much in the way of amenities. Residents had to leave to the older parts of the city for shopping, school and work, and this started the area’s reputation’s downward spiral.

Its reputation really took a plunge in the 70s when gangs started springing up and fighting over territory. The community of Easterhouse soon became synonymous with words like poverty, deprivation, gang violence, and other urban ills. Today, 27 percent of its residents are registered as disabled. The average life expectancy for men and women is lower than the Glasgow average. Over 40 per cent of the children live in poverty, while the nationwide percentage is at 9 percent. Single parent households account for half of all family households with dependent children.

A man crosses a field outside The Bridge.

More than half a century later after its creation, Easterhouse is making the news as one of the worst places to live in the U.K. But to walk into Easterhouse today gives you a different impression than initially thought. It manages to present a striking image contrary to those already pre-conceived by a person who’s only idea of the community might be based on national statistics and disheartening facts and figures.

The area is noticeably less taken care of than the central city. Instead, it has a rough-around-the-edges look. It has rusted gates, cracked sidewalks, vacant lots, and spotted fields. Large clues as to past regeneration efforts are obvious and provide an interesting juxtaposition: Shandwick Square, a 70s era style mall that stands in the centre of Easterhouse, pales in comparison to the new and bustling Glasgow Fort Shopping Park, with its dozens of brand name stores and enormous parking lot, located just west of the centre.

On the surface, though, there continue to be several striking physical changes to Easterhouse in the years since Duncan Smith’s heavily publicised epiphany. Easterhouse resembles an average suburb, with matching small concrete houses with little metal gates lining the lawns. The houses are built on large plots of land that allow the neighbourhood to be spaced well apart, even accompanied by an occasional vacant field next to them. This allows for the impression that there truly isn’t much in this area, as your eyes stretch to see beyond the houses and the empty fields. There are no high-rise apartment buildings, only stout walk-ups, townhouses and detached homes. The buildings are generally old, save for the college building and the adjacent busy and well-stocked local community hub called The Bridge, which contains a swimming pool, computer facilities, a café and a library. Activity is lively inside The Bridge, but not outside. Few people are out, if only for the purpose of getting to the bus or walking to their car. The Bridge stands out though. It is in its own league: it hosts a variety of facilities within one state-of-the-art building and is there to provide the community as much as it can, and that’s the point. These buildings are the physical manifestation of a regeneration plan drawn up by the last Labour government in 2002.

The Bridge is at the centre of Easterhouse. At the heart of The Bridge, though, is Platform, an arts centre in which James Dean is the events and communities lead. Platform works to provide arts programs year round as a means to engage the much-deprived community, and its work is deeply rooted in its location. Dean, a casually dressed man who is clearly at ease in the Bridge, seems to almost blend in with the other residents. He has been involved in this arts and culture hub for years now and has spent a total of 14 years working closely with residents of all ages in Easterhouse and other housing schemes.

“Easterhouse is not as bad as it used to be, it doesn’t suffer from the same problems it did 20 years ago. There is no more of that gang violence that was so prominent back in the 80s. Before, I could name 7-8 gang-affiliated areas right around this area before all this was built but that’s not the case now.”

Indeed, a lot of the culture has changed, but the community remains to be disconnected, Dean says. The area is still almost entirely made up of white Scottish families, though Dean says there has been increase in Polish immigrants settling in the area. There are more young people than old, who are receiving more and better education than that of the older residents. Still, Dean says that many of those who can afford to move away already have, and found better houses and jobs elsewhere.

Disconnected, as characterized by Dean, may be an apt term to describe the community. The world of Easterhouse seems insular – it is isolated six miles east outside of the city centre, and the community is so starkly different from the polished look and vibrant atmosphere of the rest of Glasgow that it seems to function within its own gloomier bubble. It has fared the worst among its other sibling housing projects. Over the course of many decades, a lot of money has already gone into its regeneration, but residents and news outlets have deemed it to little success. In another attempt at renewal, Glasgow City Council has released a report in September of this year stating that it has created a 20-year revamp plan for the area that involves building 6000 new homes and much more. But will these plans, like so many other plans before it, really make a difference for Easterhouse?

The council has stated that the Greater Easterhouse area has attracted over £400 million for use over the next 20 years from both public and private sector investment. Besides the construction of the new homes, which will make use of the 180 hectares of vacant land in the area, the money will go towards investing in transport infrastructure, green space and building new nurseries and schools. Included in this plan as well is the key proposal of the Seven Lochs Wetland Park, which will see the creation of new walking and cycling trails. About 250 existing homes are also being improved by implementing energy efficiency schemes, which is supposed to reduce heating bills for locals and lower emissions.

An illustration of the proposed developments as part of the 20-year regeneration report for Easterhouse as released by city council. Picture provided by Glasgow City Council.

The council alone has invested over £82 million in supporting housing development in the Greater Easterhouse area since 2003, while local housing entities have invested over £250 million in the area over the past 20 years. For Glasgow’s own city budget for the fiscal year of 2017-18, the gross expenditure approved for their Investment Programme is currently at £512.9 million.

For this historically depressed community, who has bore witness to years of floundering growth, the latest developments out of city council do not ignite enthusiasm. Residents and workers in Easterhouse have met the news with little fanfare or optimism.

Maggie Macbean is a community organizer for the central housing area of Easterhouse with an organization called Thriving Places. Before she has to run off to another meeting with community partners, she sits down to discuss the morale of the residents. In her very neat and professional outfit, it’s hard to imagine her running around completing her various responsibilities to the community. Her work involves engaging residents in all levels of decision-making and making sure services are provided to them. She participates in monthly residents group meetings, local partnership meetings, and delivering Family Meal and Homework Clubs in local schools, and much more.

People wait at a bus stop in Easterhouse.

Macbean identifies her greatest challenge to be getting the locals engaged and involved in decision-making processes about the community. They remain largely disinterested. The residents have shown a similar lacklustre reaction to the big news of the council’s 20-year vision for Easterhouse, if they are even aware of it (many are not, according to her). Her reason as to why it’s so difficult is heartbreaking.

They’ve been let down too much in the past,” she says.

“There have been so many attempts at regeneration in Easterhouse and so much money already put into it, which has resulted in seeing no social change, that people are very disengaged now,” she continued. “There are still people who want to be involved but they don’t feel very affected by it because they feel like they haven’t been listened to.”

A sign at the end of a residential street in Easterhouse.

According to both Dean and Macbean, the locals’ lack of positive reaction to the council’s news has been brought about after years of continual dissatisfaction and being beaten down. They struggle to be understood and taken seriously, and don’t think their voices are being heard. In fact, in the 2011 Scottish Parliament Elections, more than 54 per cent of those registered in the affluent Edinburgh Central voted; in Easterhouse, the number was less than 35 per cent. It’s cause to believe that the Easterhouse people have lost faith in government, progress and change.

“The people here have already been consulted to death,” Dean says. “It’s gotten to the point where you just can’t keep asking more questions about living in Easterhouse because the reaction is going to be ‘f— off’ or ‘why should I speak to you.’ You now have to be creative in asking questions in order to get real feedback.”

“The government is always going to say something different – that they have the community onboard,” continued Dean. “But the residents are sceptical.”

Dean explains that City Council objectives are not necessarily filtered down to the local people. It’s also hard to translate the objectives into tangible and understandable terms for the residents, making it difficult to comprehend what exactly the council is trying to build or provide.

“There is definitely a lack of communal spaces, but that has been improved over the years and should probably continue with this new city council plan. Fighting isolation is the ultimate goal.”

According to Dean, the Glasgow Life community section has been savagely cut, and the result of those cuts have meant that the housing associations in the Easterhouse area have been totally out of touch with the local people.

Dean is particularly impassioned and frustrated as he begins to recount an example. Shandwick Square, the decades-old shopping centre in central Easterhouse, used to have public toilets in it that were managed by the city, but the council closed them a few years ago. Now, the council owns the entire shopping mall and have plans to improve the facility, but their latest presentation at a meeting with local partners showed that the planned improvements did not include new toilets. Council cited that the restrooms were too expensive to maintain.

Dean says that the main complaint about the shopping centre from residents was that it had no public toilets, only access to a disabled toilet that was situated in the centre’s security office. Access to that toilet is also limited, as staff need to be on hand to let people in. Dean expressed that the short-sightedness displayed by the council was disturbing.

“It just makes no sense that it’s too expensive to maintain the restrooms of a mall,” said Dean. “A mall has to have restrooms no matter the cost. That’s why this is a bigger issue, why should Easterhouse residents be treated as second-class citizens? They deserve just the same things as everyone else. This isn’t acceptable.”

Inside the Shandwick Square shopping centre, the mall without public restrooms, as city council cited they were too expensive to maintain.

Certainly, the area may no longer as “bad” as it used to be, and looks remarkably different from the old photos of the city taken just a few decades prior. But stories from local workers and residents from Easterhouse still illustrate a far from perfect situation.

A young man who did not want to be named agrees that there is a lack of interest within the community. He is a resident of Easterhouse and goes to school in the area. Dressed casually in jeans and a plaid shirt while sporting a backpack, he is on his way to the bus stop to head home. He was not aware of the city’s report on its 20-year vision for Easterhouse, and suspects that even if people knew they wouldn’t really care.

“I don’t think anyone is going to get really excited about it,” he says. “It’s more like, sure, we’ll wait and see what happens, but people aren’t expecting much.”

The 2016 figures collected for the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation still show that Easterhouse is set in the most deprived 15 percent for every indicator besides geographic access – including employment, income and education. So that begs the question: has there been systemic change happening over the years, at a very slow rate? Or has there even been any change at all?

In a conversation with Keith Kintrea, a professor of Urban Studies and Housing at the University of Glasgow, it becomes clear that Easterhouse has a long and complicated history that it still suffers from even to this day. Most of the challenges that may have stifled regeneration efforts can be explained by its original rushed construction and a consequence of the times that it was built in.

“It was very much obvious that Easterhouse wasn’t very planned,” says Kintrea. “The emphasis was mostly on building people decent houses as they were seen at the time. I think it became fairly quickly realized that that approach to redevelopment was not very sensible, which is really where Easterhouse’s negative reputation started to appear.”

“So why it turned out to be a disaster was because it was poorly planned in the first place but built with good intentions. They were built quite cheaply and not built in ways that would let the community develop. House types that were built were not the most popular type and on top of that, there was an industrial disaster which impoverished a lot of people.”

Houses in an Easterhouse neighbourhood.

This industrial crash in the 70s was the original culprit as to why Easterhouse started going downhill. It heavily debilitated a working class community that relied on a labour market, as opposed to the newly emerging service economy.

“When there’s an industrial crash, there tends to be a sort of vicious cycle involved,”Kintrea explains. “People that have got more skills moved out to somewhere else. To an extent, the more ambitious people leave and the younger people who grow up, who perhaps expected to follow their parents in the same occupations, those jobs weren’t there anymore. Easterhouse also couldn’t keep up or compete with the new type of housing market that was emerging.”

Kintrea also explained that the regeneration that has gone into Easterhouse over the years has been to some avail, despite news reports and others saying otherwise.

“Looking at the statistics, it’s easy to say nothing has improved. But I think you have to ask the question, what would have happened if there had not been any intervention at all?” says Kintrea.

Kintrea does not deny that Easterhouse is still an area with high levels of deprivation. A lot of the regeneration and money has been spent on the physical aspects like housing renewal, but he thinks that that was probably necessary to have any level of stability in the area at all.

Balconies on a stout walk-up apartment building.

Kintrea goes on to describe urban change as a traditionally slow process. The efforts put into Easterhouse already have made the city a bit more accessible despite its suburban location, he says, although owning a car plays an important part to that. It’s also allowed the area to have a wider mix of incomes. The change has been brought about in an incremental way, in a bottoms-up method given the underprivileged state that Easterhouse was in. It gave way for a sporadic pattern of development.

“It’s difficult to take very much away from the city’s latest plan – it’s helpful and useful that there is a plan of some kind, but I wouldn’t draw too many conclusions from it. It’s good that there is a continued investment in the area. For those new homes planning to be built though, what’s most important is that there has to be a market for them. Easterhouse is competing with other locations.”

Maggie shares a similar sentiment.

“While it’s great news that there is going to be a lot of investment in the area, there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done to get the community to feel that this is going to be a good thing,” she says.

Her goal now is to get the local people to advocate and support themselves, rather than relying on other people advocating for them.

“The upside is that this community is full of lovely, friendly, positive people. There are some who really want to make a positive difference in the community and I try to work with them.”

This is why the recently announced “revamp” of Easterhouse is a more complex issue than it first seems. It’s why the local people and its workers have expressed their cynicism and reservations about the proposed developments, and don’t buy into the belief that Easterhouse has changed successfully. This is an area that has been fraught with a number of complex and multi-layered issues that have never been truly rectified. Certainly, the predicament that Easterhouse finds itself in speaks to the limitations of urban renewal projects, the significance of an area’s historical narrative and proof that not all efforts will be met with great success. While the general feeling is that no one opposes the plans, there are doubts that they would be as great or as effective and far reaching as they sound. It feels like this has been done or heard before.