Steph Daly: Modern myths about Sighthill’s decline place the blame in the wrong places

12/01/2017
angela

Following the broadcast of a new BBC Scotland documentary on Glasgow’s Sighthill, former resident Steph Daly recalls his memories of the area and why he believes it declined

MY family was one of the first families to move in to the ‘high flats’ in Sighthill in December 1967. I was two and a half.

We previously owned our own home in Springburn, a room and kitchen in a tenement with a toilet in the stair landing. There was an open ballot for people to move into the new flats, my mum and dad applied, and we were accepted.

For my mother, with a toddler and a nine year old, there was nothing not to like about these exciting new concrete behemoths. Indoor toilet, underfloor heating, a kitchen with fitted cupboards, two bedrooms, an outside area to dry clothes and even a ‘hot cupboard’ in the landing in which, for a sixpence, you could dry your clothes swiftly. Domestically, for us we were at the pinnacle of what the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, described as the “white heat of technology”.

We previously owned our own home in Springburn, a room and kitchen in a tenement with a toilet in the stair landing.

For the first four or five years there were really no amenities in Sighthill. There were a few shops on Springburn Road – Mr Robertson the grocer being a standout – but with Glasgow City Council’s jihadi-like perversity in demolishing tenements at an alarming rate and destroying communities, Mr Roberston’s shop, and the others, were swept away in this working class ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Jimmy’s Van, a mobile but static shop, stood at the bottom of 17 Pinkston Drive, and for many years was the only place to get household essentials like milk and bread.

Sighthill is split into two: Pinkston and Fountainwell. Both halves were separated by the disused Caledonian Railway line which previously ran trains in and out of the old Buchanan Street station, which stood where Caledonian University is currently.

This perversity of demolishing tenements actually brought both parts of Sighthill together and joined them up. The rubble from this blanket destruction was used to fill in the 40ft embankments of the railway line. To this day I can take you to a spot where I know if we dig deep enough, we’ll find the remnants of an old piano.

Once the railway line was filled in, work began to provide amenities, (except footpaths, which didn’t come until the early 1980s – muddy ‘desire lines’ were used extensively previously) and a shopping centre opened, with a concentration of shops and services that even those in the leafy West End would have been happy to have. 

For my mother, with a toddler and a nine year old, there was nothing not to like about these exciting new concrete behemoths.

There was a Templetons/Galbraiths supermarket, a sit-in Indian restaurant, a Rio Stakis steak house, Dazliel’s bakers and tea room, newsagents, chemist and the one I remember most as a boy, a greengrocers run by a lovely Greek/Cypriot couple. 

We had it all, we certainly had more at that time than the post-war sprawling housing ‘stalags’ of Easterhouse, Castlemilk and Drumchapel. The catchment area of my secondary school, St Roch’s, included Townhead, Germiston, Royston, Blackhill and Provanmill, and I remember distinctly as a nice shiny first year pupil in 1977 my new teachers describing those of us who came from St Stephen’s in Sighthill as living in the “posh area”. 

It was around this time that the seeds of Sighthill’s destruction were planted. From around 1975, so many families who had moved to Sighthill with hope and optimism in the late 1960s/early 1970s and who perhaps felt restricted by this high density living, decided that they wanted their young families to grow up in less of a concrete jungle, with wide spaces, fresh air and perhaps a small garden. 

The ‘new town’ of Cumbernauld offered just that opportunity, and the depopulation of Sighthill began. When I think back on some of the families that did move, like the Shields and the Jeffreys, it wasn’t just the people we lost, it was their economic and social activity. 

The fathers of both families were both highly skilled, well paid engineers, and if those two were a representative sample of all that left, it is undoubted, certainly by me, that Sighthill suffered.

I remember distinctly as a nice shiny first year pupil in 1977 my new teachers describing those of us who came from St Stephen’s in Sighthill as living in the “posh area”. 

It is often repeated by people who know nothing about Sighthill – and even some people who actually lived there – that drugs killed Sighthill, but this is complete nonsense. Heroin was an effect, not a cause. Drugs were not a substantive issue pre early 1980s. This changed dramatically from 1983/84 and onwards.

Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, and in 1983 set forward a plan called ‘care in the community’ where large institutions, like Woodilee Hospital, a large psychiatric hospital near Lenzie, would close and patients would live independently in their own home with community-based psychiatric care.

The people who were released, from what I observed at the time and from what I have gained in experience since, had severe mental health problems and addiction issues, mostly alcohol. As Sighthill’s depopulation to new towns continued, many of the flats became vacant and were then occupied with many of the people released from institutions into the care in the community model. 

As a model, it’s a great idea, I firmly believe in community care and independent living for all people with disabilities. However, there was no care in Sighthill, severely ill people were left to their own devices, including those with addiction issues. Thatcher’s model, while sounding great, was a complete sleight of hand.

The ‘care’ part was totally, and I assert, deliberately underfunded. The rush to close institutions was not based on any clinical decisions, it was 100 per cent about saving money and not spending taxpayers money on the ‘undeserving’. Glasgow City Council also has a lot to answer for for its under investment in communities, not just in Sighthill, but all over the city. 

It is often repeated by people who know nothing about Sighthill that drugs killed it, but this is complete nonsense. Heroin was an effect, not a cause.

The regeneration of Sighthill is great, though I’ve still to go back and have a look. No Labour Party-elected councillors, who have been in power in Glasgow for around 80 years, can take any credit for the ‘new Sighthill’.

Gordon Matheson, former Labour leader of the council, took a punt on Glasgow hosting the Youth Olympic Games in 2018 and showed plans for the athletes village to be built in Sighthill. Glasgow didn’t get the games, but the cat was out of the bag regarding new housing, and had to be moved on. 

Matheson said in 2012, after the decision, this about Sighthill: “The plans are tremendously exciting and bring forward the transformation of the area by 20 years. 

“While we are disappointed by the Youth Olympic Games decision, one legacy of our fantastic bid will be the creation of a very attractive place in which to live, work and study. The regeneration of Sighthill will continue our work to unlock the massive potential of the north side of the city centre.”

It wasn’t the people in Sighthill that caused the problems, the cause was taking decisions far away from the people who lived there.

So there you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth. The council was prepared to let Sighthill rot, with no investment, for another 20 years.

In conclusion, it wasn’t the people in Sighthill that caused the problems, the cause was taking decisions far away from the people who lived there.

I, for one, am proud to have been raised in Sighthill.

Picture courtesy of Graeme Maclean

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