Save the Wyndford, Demolish Wheatley

The campaign to prevent the Wheatley Group from demolishing the Wyndford Estate is a flashpoint in a wider class struggle against structural deprivation. By Sean O’Neill and Stephanie Martin.

You would think that after three housing emergency declarations in one year, with homelessness at its highest since records began, and over 300,000 households on the affordable homes waiting list – surely the Scottish Government would show some political leadership and start putting roofs over people’s heads. Instead, its latest budget did the unthinkable, pouring petrol on the flames by slashing the affordable housebuilding budget by £200m.

Photo Credit: Edd Carlile

Meanwhile, the country’s largest ‘social’ landlord the Wheatley Group refuses to see sense – accelerating its reckless and unpopular plans to blow up more precious social housing: the four iconic tower blocks (600 units) on the Wyndford Estate in Maryhill, North Glasgow. These towers are to be replaced with less than half the amount of social housing and an unconfirmed number of homes for mid-market rent. The situation is beyond tragedy.

The Wheatley Group has been running down and demolishing communities since its inception as the Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) in 2003, when it was given carte blanche to do so after the infamous transfer of all Glasgow council housing stock.

Why such a fetish for blowing up homes? Because high-rise schemes are remnants of the modernist housing revolution. Symbols of affordable council housing for the people, which is the exact opposite of what the beneficiaries of stock transfer stand for. There is more money to be made in mid-market rent, designed to attract an upwardly mobile clientele.

No wonder we have been conditioned to see social towers as “eyesores” and to stigmatise schemes as hotbeds of crime and drugs — home to a lesser, undesirable kind of people. People to be uprooted and pushed out on the whim of big developers. In reality, the eyesores of the modern urban skyline are the symbols of finance — oppressive glass towers that dominate our city centres in times of record homelessness. High-rise student accommodation blocks are also increasingly dominating this skyline, and you have to question the economic logic behind approving this style of multistorey building, with short-term extortionate lets for students who take on loans to afford them, while tearing down genuinely affordable towers in working class schemes.

The Wheatley Group’s obsession with demolition is an ideology shared with the city authorities. This was to be on full display at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in a move no one asked for. Only local backlash at ill-conceived plans to blow up the Red Road flats in a live TV celebration dissuaded Glasgow City Council from pressing the button for the viewing pleasure of international spectators.

Still, the nearly 5,000 homes on the site of Red Road would all be gone within months. A decade on, not one brick of the promised social housing that was to replace the flats has been laid. What was once home to an impressive community in the sky boasting the tallest residential blocks in Europe is now quite literally a hole in the ground. Today’s crisis – at its root a chronic lack of social homes according to both SOLACE and Shelter – can be traced back to the foundation of the GHA right through to its shapeshifting into national property company The Wheatley Group. It is the outcome of a mass demolition spree in Glasgow ongoing now for nearly two decades.

In Castlemilk, the Mitchellhill flats “blowdown” in 2005 made spectacular entertainment of watching the homes our parents grew up in getting razed to the ground. This would be followed by the demolition of blocks at Sighthill, Ibrox and the Gallowgate. When they came calling for the Wyndford in 2021, we soon made clear that our scheme would not go down without a fight. Times had changed and while the landlord class wanted a replay – they could afford to ignore the lessons of the past – tenants refused. We would not sit back and watch them dynamite our community for sport.

For the Wheatley Group, the valiant struggle of local people in the Wyndford is the chickens coming home to roost. The Wyndford Residents Union has taken them into uncharted waters, brought them out for the world to see, but not in the way they wanted. A combination of direct action tactics and high-rise tenants pledging to resist the social cleansing and remain in their homes has delayed the demolition twice, forcing a climbdown on the proposed number of newbuild properties for mid-market rent.

Our efforts have also defeated the council in the courtroom over its failure to conduct a (still unforthcoming) Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), with a fresh legal challenge in the works. So too are plans for a free and fair, independent People’s Vote – a ballot of every household in the Wyndford on whether regeneration money should be spent on demolition or retrofit. If the vast majority of residents are so firmly behind the landlord’s plans as it claims, they have no reason to fear the square go.

The desire to rupture business as usual and go the distance against outside forces who wish to hack at the social fabric of the community is nothing new in the Wyndford and broader Maryhill, which ran its own affairs as an independent Burgh in the mid to late 1800s. The famous Maryhill Burgh Halls were once neglected and set for demolition until local people rose to defend their built heritage and forced a refurbishment. The identity of Maryhill is expressed in this way by its people at various points in history.

The seeds of our current campaign were planted in the Save Our Schools protest movement in 2009, when local parents led a march and occupied the Wyndford and St. Gregory’s schools against their closure. Peter Byrne, who was on the frontlines of this action remains an active member of the Wyndford Residents Union today. Their efforts were instrumental in saving part of the school buildings which later became The Maryhill Hub, a beloved council-run community centre offering a plethora of clubs and services, including one of the cheapest gym memberships in the city.

This immense social value is treated like collateral damage in the Wheatley Group’s long-term gentrification project, which only sees the land value: the Hub is to be demolished and replaced with a smaller centre outside the Wyndford. Once again, no one asked for this deprivation. ‘People Make Glasgow’ – but not the decisions.

The faceless Wheatley Group CEO Steven Henderson remains silent in all this. His background is as an accountant in the ivory towers of the European Investment Bank, a million miles from the high rise social housing towers he is eviscerating from Glasgow’s skyline.

He is not the only housing hypocrite who will face retribution for their actions or lack thereof in this sorry chapter. The Housing minister, Paul McLennan was recently quoted as saying that the right to a warm home is one that every Scot should enjoy, while also denying that the country’s historic homelessness constitutes a crisis. Which one is it Paul?

Perhaps worst of all is minister for Tenants Rights and Net Zero Buildings, Patrick Harvie. A man who when approached by one of our members at May Day last year had no concern for the very real tenants rights breach our neighbours suffered in being socially cleansed, nor any interest in the cheaper and greener option of retrofit as laid out in Malcolm Fraser’s landmark In Praise of Sturdy Buildings report.

Harvie went on to take part in the May Day march with his party behind a banner that read ‘Environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening’. We consider that an insult to gardeners, whose labour is far more socially useful than the charlatans like Harvie stealing a wage in Holyrood. I have since wondered if the Greens’ banner that day meant the class struggle of the oppressor against the oppressed.

But enough about the villains in this story – the heroes are the Wyndford women who have been the heart and soul of the campaign through the good and bad. People like Pam, who “would like to see the Wyndford celebrated instead of run down. The powers that be should be ashamed of the way they spin life in a scheme”. She reflects that fighting the campaign has felt “incredibly hopeful, angry, positive, negative, powerful, powerless, connected – a huge personal impact that will stay with me forever”.

And Laura, who considers that the campaign “is a flashpoint at the intersection of all the major struggles today: the climate crisis, the housing crisis, the refugee crisis, the exploitation of the latter by the burgeoning far-right and the hiving off of public infrastructure to investment banks and hedge funds that perpetuate global instability”. She points out that “despite attempts to stigmatise the residents of the towers, crime has actually increased since the tenants in the towers were evicted”.

Sean O’Neill is secretary of the Wyndford Residents Union. Stephanie Martin is former chair of the Wyndford Residents Union and a UNISON organiser.