Neighbourhood watch

11th July 1997 at 01:00
The children of Craigmillar are involved in plans to regenerate their district. Seonag MacKinnon reports

On Friday nights in the Sixties the streets of Craigmillar in Edinburgh resounded to the sound of clogs as brewery workers spilled out for the weekend. They walked home in droves, paid their "Provi" cheque for the past week's messages, then got out the best clothes for a night on the town with dancing.

But for the past 20 years there has been no concerted noise on a Friday, no rhythm to the week. A significant percentage of able-bodied Craigmillar people have been on the "broo" as opposed to in the brewery. All seven breweries are now shut. Likewise the creamery and the brickworks.

Craigmillar is, in the minds of many employers, a rough, tough district of long-term unemployment and deprivation. But over the past five years things have been stirring. Schools threatened with closure because they were operating at 40-50 per cent capacity have been helping to spearhead the fight to regenerate the area.

Craigmillar is faced with a potential bonanza as the city embarks on major expansion with plans to build a new hospital, 5,000 houses, a business park, community facilities, shops and a country park in a 1,370 hectare predominantly greenfield area known as the "south-east wedge". If residents were stoical and the council indifferent, Craigmillar could be a ghetto on the boundary. But activists are fighting to ensure that it rises above its past to capitalise on the burgeoning new neighbourhood.

Friends of Craigmillar, an organisation funded by Urban Aid and run with help from local business executives, has included children in the planning process.

Last year 40 primary pupils were brought together for a week in a community centre to produce - with the help of teachers, architects, planners, urban designers, artists, environmentalists and youth workers - a 20ft model of the new development to their own design. The project, which involved local schools, was called EcoCity.

Wimpey, the builders, provided more than Pounds 4,000 worth of materials and laid on an architect and three joiners for a week to construct the model. The result, which the children named Castlevale, included wind and solar power energy systems, as well as a reed bed sewage process (a system which relies on reeds to cleanse sewage).

This spring 100 children from Greendykes, Peffermill and Craigmillar primaries, as well as Castlebrae Community High, have taken part in Castlevale. Each school was paired with one of the south-east wedge working groups - transport, housing, planning, educationeconomic development - to mirror the real planning process.

The children staged a public presentation of the full wish list in an Edinburgh University theatre for planners, education officials, parents and teachers. The celebrities at this sound and light show knew their place: unequivocably bottom of the bill. Co-ordinators from the Magic Lantern Van and Young People Speak Out, and Ron Butlin, Craigmillar's writer-in-residence, gave local children star billing above a councillor, the Hibs footballer (and Craigmillar native) Keith Wright, and presenters of STV children's programme Skoosh. They were only allowed on stage for the final few minutes.

After playing "Things Can Only Get Better", the children launched into a round reciting "Listen to the children". "Sunshine After The Rain" was the background music for a tape and slide presentation in which a housing expert spelt out that Craigmillar's problem was not old houses but badly-built housing from the Sixties and Seventies.

The audience of 200 then saw pupils in wigs in a video imitating the Spice Girls and listing what they really, really wanted (more clubs, more shops and solar-powered cars). The video cut to a pupil interviewer who listened politely when a hospital official said that "pedestrian access will be facilitated". (It will be easy to reach the hospital on foot.) The Whitney Houston hit "Step by Step" played as youngsters made their pitch for a beauty parlour, McDonald's burger bar, "the pictures", an ice rink, a swimming pool, trams, an adventure playground, a car-free zone and a "village" square with mosaic tiles. Vetoed were the tunnel pathways which exist now, but which local people are too scared to use.

Children on stage then became news presenters and roving reporters with microphones from such events as "An Ideal Home" exhibition. The links sounded authentic: "That's all from me, Thomas Tams at Craigmillar."

The children also let the audience know that houses should be grouped into villages. Tenements got a definite thumbs-down - everyone should have their own front door and back garden, they said. Project co-ordinator Debbie Livingstone says the children have no illusions about life in a shared building. "They'll have seen some pretty horrible stairs in their time and, in practice, back greens can be derelict when nobody takes responsibility for them."

Ironically Craigmillar was largely built as a refuge after major slum clearances in the city centre. Edinburgh Council says it is aiming to make no mistakes with this new plan. "The creation of real communities with character rather than sterile housing estates is expected from the south east wedge development," it says.

Margaret Lowrey, head of local primary St Francis, has lived or worked in Craigmillar for the best part of 40 years. She believes unemployment rather than housing has triggered the area's decline. "I watched it happen. The area was rough and ready - but thriving and full of good people. You would leave your doors unlocked. People weren't desperate for money, and drugs weren't around. Now plenty of people are on drug recovery programmes and the street where we nearly bought a house looks like Beirut. People lost their pride in the place. Some tried and it just about kept its head above water. I'm delighted now there is fresh hope."

She paid tribute to Castlebrae Community High School which has just completed a radical five-year programme of change. "It is a tremendous team there. There is a lot of life in Craigmillar and much of it pulses out of Castlebrae. " For the first time in many years, three Castlebrae pupils last year went on to university. Now 49 per cent of Castlebrae school-leavers head for jobs within six months of leaving school, compared to an Edinburgh average of 31 per cent.

But is Castlevale likely to work in terms of the children really having an impact on the very complicated plans? Is this true consultation or just an elaborate PR exercise by companies and councillors seizing an opportunity to get the local community on board and to welcome children for photo opportunities in the press?

Debbie Livingstone admits she was somewhat disappointed by planners' reaction to the earlier EcoCity project. "They seemed to be just saying 'very pretty' and 'haven't the kids done well?'" As she helped the children to prepare the shortlist of prioritised suggestions, she said: "I would like to think they are taking this seriously. At least they are making a commitment to listen, which is a lot more than they have done with the adults so far."

But if indeed Castlevale has been to some degree a public relations exercise, it has undoubtedly worked for the half-empty schools of Craigmillar dogged by poor reputations and under threat of closure. Willie Crosbie, headteacher of Castlebrae, says: "This is a rare opportunity to demonstrate to parents and some movers and shakers what Craigmillar children are capable of. People can see what they are really like - kids like anywhere else."

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