Why the Wyndford Campaign Matters

Malcolm Fraser unpicks the connections between carbon, climate, and the social cleansing of the Wyndford.

We are waking up to our climate emergency and the role carbon has in it. The world has turned, and the Wheatley Group’s Wyndford ‘Regeneration’ proposals, to dynamite 47,000 tonnes of sequestered carbon formed into something of great use, 600 social homes – are on the wrong side of history. Shamefully so, in a city that proudly hosted COP26 and proudly proclaims its retrofit credentials.

Wheatley’s proposals are also a betrayal of that good, Scottish tradition of building cities that are more socially mixed and better shared than those down south, where workers have access to the beauties and amenities of the city, and do not have to trek into town from distant dormitories. The evils of social cleansing are too long to list.

Photo credit: Fraser/Livingstone Architects.

Wheatley’s stream of Reports responding to the community’s defence of its home, are entirely to be expected from an organisation with immense power, patronage and financial muscle, but they all seem built on an instruction to find reasons for laying flats to waste, and so ignore evidence, manipulate data, and steadfastly refuse to apply the teeniest bit of imagination. The Wyndford Residents Union have carefully demolished their arguments.

The Wheatley Group have argued, for instance, that the alternative to demolition would be to combine the flats, but that this is impossible because structural openings made in the same place right up the buildings might destabilise them. The Residents Union have shown that this problem can be dealt with simply by staggering the openings.

Residents have also singled out the mirage and misuse of “consultation”: the idea that you can offer 1500 households a single, glossily-promoted option, and if a mere 300 say yes, you can declare it to constitute “overwhelming support”.

And, just like Wheatley’s idea of consultation has been traduced, so have their arguments on carbon. The Wheatley reports put forward the novel idea that, because all the carbon that has been emitted making the concrete towers will be broken down and spread over the site, it will remain usefully sequestered. It is a shameful idea that landfill is useful – let alone as comparatively useful as social homes –particularly when it comes from a social housing provider.

Personally, I am concerned about a whole profession of carbon-analysis that is growing-up, whose practitioners manipulate simple and obvious virtues to suit their paymasters. I find the simple term ‘waste’ more helpful than ‘sequestration’, and better able to describe the follies of human society built on an endless cycle of extraction and destruction.

So the plans for the Wyndford are a carbon-crime. But they are also, put most simply, a terrible waste of good social homes.

Built Heritage

Many people dislike the modern architecture that these towers represent. And, indeed, many towers of the post-war era were badly built, and are hard to save. But the Wyndford Estate is not like this: built by a National agency, the Scottish Special Housing Association, as opposed to the councils that built most other tower blocks, it had a slightly larger budget, and higher ambitions. It is well built, sturdily built, and an example of the best of post-war housing.

And we should recognise the best in our built heritage. I’m old enough to have campaigned, in the 1970s, against the demolition of huge swathes of Glasgow’s stone tenements. They were then unfashionable, as modernist towers are now, but we’ve come to appreciate their solidity and adaptability, and the braw urban patterns they make – strong, gallus, and characteristically Glaswegian. The Wyndford’s towers share that strength, and we should see them as a continuum in the gallus traditions of Glasgow building. Wiping them out, as the Wheatley Group are trying to do, would remove a vital part of our history and heritage.

The View

And the views from them, out across Glasgow, are breathtaking. Frank, who lives on the 19th floor, loves watching the sun rise on one side of his flat, and set on the other. He’s a labourer, working on sites in central Glasgow, and loves to walk into work along the River Kelvin. During lockdown he particularly appreciated the river and focussed on birdwatching, and otter-watching – very good for his mental health. The idea that this sort of neighbourhood and amenity is unsuitable for the less-wealthy members of society shames us.

The siting of the Wyndford at the intersection of various contemporary issues – the housing crisis, the rights of communities to be consulted about their future, the effect of demolition on the carbon and climate crises, and the appreciation of heritage – is remarkable. But my and other architects’ support for the campaign to save them has been the target of some snash, as if we are distant and posh professionals telling the community to care for the unfashionable homes which are best obliterated.

This view is patronising, for it is the residents who have led, making the same points that we are making to a construction and political establishment that hosted COP. This establishment blathers on about retrofit and the drive to net zero while enabling big corporations like the Wheatley Group to make a mockery of these things. With one hand the elites take consultancy fees from Wheatleys, and with the other pass to them the vast bag of our taxes to dynamite their housing stock.

We believe in redemption: politicians will not lose face by looking again at this and declaring that the battle for the Wyndford can be a turning-point, where taxpayers’ money henceforward follow their net-zero and retrofit pronouncements. The consistent and compelling arguments of the residents’ campaign must result, at least, in an unbiased study to revisit the hasty decisions that were made to condemn the towers.

Malcolm Fraser is an architect, writer, policymaker and advocate for social and environmental responsibility in architecture.