When an institution that is the fabric of a community disappears, it is housing associations who can step in and provide the vision, stability and security that all communities need.
By David Orr, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation
26 January 2017
I grew up in a place called Oxgangs. It was a new council estate built on the south side of Edinburgh, half way up the Pentland Hills. It was built in the late 50s and early 60s – one of a large number of new communities created around then.
My father was the minister of a Church of Scotland church, St John’s. We were there right at the start, even before the church was built, when services were held in a wooden hut on the site. My younger sister was the first baby baptised there.
At that time, Oxgangs had a parade of shops, a school, a pub and a church. The community centre followed some years later, the library later still. My father, Jack, took the view that the church was not just for the people who came to services but had a key role to play in the life of the whole community. He set about, with lots of help from my mother Janet and various other people in the church, to make that a reality.
I guess Oxgangs was in many respects a fairly unremarkable place. The homes were good quality and spacious, even if lacking in architectural merit. Most were council homes to rent with some for people to buy. There was also an area we all called, with startling literacy, the ‘self-builds’. It was only in my mid 40s that I discovered this was the biggest single self-build estate in the country. The school and particularly the church became the centre of a vast array of community activities and my dad was known by everyone. I still assert he was the best community worker I have ever met with a fantastic ability to get people to do things they themselves didn’t think they could do.
This environment, and having a loving and supportive family, gave me a great childhood and fundamentally shaped who I am today – what I care about, the way I approach the world, my views and opinions.
So why am I writing this now? A few days ago, St John’s church was demolished. Although I left Oxgangs a long time ago, and have not been a member of a church for a very long time, I must admit this has made me very sad. When I was a child Oxgangs was a young place. My dad couldn’t get to the Hearts games with me very often because there were always weddings on a Saturday afternoon (including, in due course, mine and all three of my siblings). It was a place full of life and vitality, with young families making their way in the world.
It has, of course, grown older and changed, and people (like me) have much less connection with the church, but St John’s was such a centre that it is almost impossible to imagine Oxgangs without it.
Things like this lead to reflection. I don’t think I am just feeling nostalgia for my childhood, although that is probably part of it. My anxiety is about what happens when institutions that are part of the fabric of communities disappear. We all need such institutions, populated by people who turn places from a large number of disparate households into a collective identity where we feel connected and rooted. Many churches of different faiths and denominations still play this role.
And one of the reasons I love my connection to housing associations is that I see many of them playing this critical role. In a time where the nation feels pretty divided, this kind of community connectivity genuinely is critical. We have to ensure that housing associations and others retain the potential to do this job.
My other reflection is that Oxgangs worked. There were problems and challenges and many people who were poor and who struggled. But in the main it was a safe and secure place to live, with good quality and genuinely affordable homes. It was an optimistic place and time. In the 1940s Oxgangs was green fields. By 1960 it was home to 7,000 people. It was built at a time when there were visionary people who understood that slums had to be cleared, the wounds of the war had to be repaired and we had to plan for a growing population.
We don’t, thankfully, have the same kind of slums now and we don’t have a landscape scarred by bombs any longer. We do, though, have a growing population and a genuine crisis in our ability to meet that need.
We need visionary people again who are not scared of building at scale and who want to create the kind of community that Oxgangs became. We need new places that can provide my children and grandchildren with the stability and security that a good home in a supportive community can provide. We need institutions like St John’s that are a centre, a beating heart, and we need people like Jack and Janet (and there are thousands of such people all over the country) who care enough to make these places work.
Our collective ability to build great new places to live cannot only be part of our past. It has to be our future too.