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January 10, 2023

Why Wheatley?

A tenet of the regeneration world seems to be that in housing terms, high rise living is inherently bad, no one wants it and it should be demolished whenever possible. Housing behemoth Wheatley seem wedded to this particular piece of regeneration dogma in relation to the Wyndford Estate in Glasgow and are prepared to fly in the face of what their tenants want, of environmental concerns at the carbon cost of demolition and rebuilding only half as many low rise homes, and even a potential heritage listing by Historic Environment Scotland. Profits before people and planet?


Malcolm Fraser, Fraser/Livingstone Architects

Wyndford high-rise resident Norman Cunningham put it best when talking to Chris Leslie, as he took these elegiac photographs: ‘Did Cop26 actually happen? In Glasgow?’

What can we say about a council and social landlord – the Wheatley Group, beneficiary of the council’s housing stock transfer – who seek to demolish 600 social homes in four tower blocks in the midst of a housing crisis? A compound crisis, affecting in particular young people and the less-well paid, ‘clapped-for’ classes but also, increasingly, students, and leaving Ukrainian refugees crammed into floating hotels in Scotland’s docks

And, as for Mr Cunningham’s comment, what can we say when that very council seeking to waste 600 homes to landfill, hosted COP26, and blandly states, in its Glasgow City Region policy statement of 2020: ‘Retrofitting our homes to make then more energy efficient offers us both a challenge and an opportunity.’ They never stint in banging-on about their green and net-zero credentials, as do the Scottish Government, which will supply our money to fund this ‘regeneration’. 

The estate lies just north of the city centre and is a modernist classic, referred to by Docomomo as ‘one of the high water marks of post-war housing provision in Scotland’. It was designed by Harold Buteaux and built between 1961 and 69 for the SSHA – the Scottish Special Housing Association – which, significantly, was a national organisation, with aspirations and budgets a wee bit above a council’s and the estate has quality to match. It totals 1,900 homes, with the to-be-retained, larger, east portion of the site a mix of 15-storey point blocks and four to nine storey maisonette slabs, nicely arranged to enclose a series of green squares with planting now fully mature. This end has had a bit of money spent on it and looks tidy, loved and nicely-continental – a perfect Glaswegian exemplar of the post-war ideals of light, landscape, air and openness that we need to cherish. The west end, next to the lovely River Kelvin and, significantly, some leafy Glasgow inner-city suburbs, has our four, brave, 26-storey towers, which have suffered a bit from inappropriate tenant placement, and have now been substantially cleared. They are down to their last, lonely 5% occupation, and have seen the surrounding landscape stripped rather than invested in, allowing their general neglect to fuel the argument for their demolition.

There is huge local resistance to this, and the first thing to make clear is that this was initiated and is led by local residents, in particular the Wyndford Residents Union, who live in and care for the place. They need no visiting architectural academics and brutalist dreamers to tell them that, first, these demolition plans are a carbon crime, for the towers are embodied and useful carbon, which can and must be saved and improved; and, second, that their estate is being socially-cleansed.

But our small group offering them assistance – Kate Mackintosh, Alan Dunlop, Miles Glendinning, social enterprise EALA Impacts, some students and me – see it as good to try to understand the opposite side’s arguments, and I’ve reached out to politicians, urban champions and others to try to broker a conversation and understand their reasoning. Amongst the regeneration boosterist puff, the proponents of demolition talk about the need to improve energy performance. But the buildings already attain an EPC Rating of C, set against a Scottish average of D, so they are good, and a solid platform on which simple improvement can be wrought.

And we, of course, know that high-rise retrofit can be done – has been done decently in Glasgow, for the Queen’s Cross Housing Association, and brilliantly elsewhere, like at Lacaton & Vassal’s Tour Bois le Pretre. So that point doesn’t hold water, and when pressed it’s clear that their main argument for demolition is that, just as their post-war predecessors demonised Glasgow’s stone tenements and slum-cleared them (Swing, Hammer, Swing), so they like to demonise the modernist heritage that replaced it, except with a demolition blast rather than a wrecking ball. 

Famous 1960’s psychiatrist R. D. Laing wrote of his home city and its ‘violence and tenderness, and great warmheartedness’. Happily, the city, in its people, has lost some of that violence, with its warmheartedness to the fore; but still, in its approach to its built fabric, it tears at itself, every generation destroying it anew. The apogee of that violence sits like carbon porn on the Wheatley website, where an extraordinary video celebrates the blowing-up of maybe two dozen tall blocks as lovingly-filmed climactic carbon gang-bangs. Did they even notice the COP that played-out in their city? Did not the tiniest hint get through to them, that we are past the time when we can heedlessly consume vast resources, bin them then consume more? Wheatley, emboldened by the stock transfer that removes democratic scrutiny from this huge social landlord, seems keen to follow this route elsewhere, advertising for a demolition officer to lead the Wyndford project and ‘Future projects [which] will be across the Group, including Dumfries and Galloway’ – they have huge holdings across Scotland, communities beware!

Their second, real reason may well be monetary. Though Wheatley are constituted as a ‘not-for-profit’ it has long been dinged into our public institutions that they need to act like they are privatised and so, here, look at the site as a developer would. (As an example, a housing association I was working for told me that I could not put a wee green at the heart of a development, as ‘children might play there’.) Development is cost-neutral for the Wheatley Group, as it is central Government funding that pays for the demolition and pays for a rebuild – our money, our taxes.

But on revenue, under a simple calculation the 600 homes on the site are social rental, for nurses, bus-drivers, cleaners – as well as the retired, refugees and the odd Buddhist priest. The planned 300 replacements will be mid-market rent, remembering the leafy surroundings of the River Kelvin and its posh suburbs, and attract a higher income (‘better class’ of person) than the 600, thus levering public money to raise the profit of the not-for-profit. 

I’ve used the term ‘social cleansing’ but it’s not deliberate cleansing – the chasing-out from their city of ordinary, old and new Glaswegians. It is not the purpose and the evil plot of some malignant landlord but rather the inevitable consequence of that landlord’s disregard for their social responsibility, on top of their climate one. But – stop-press! – in the face of the residents’ vigorous campaign Wheatley are suddenly talking about more social rent, but without the trust or firm commitment needed to convince residents they will not revert to mid-market and, if true, leaving as sole motive their orgiastic love for blowing things up. 

I should note the ‘consultation’, and Wheatley’s claim of ‘overwhelming support’. Consultation is important in Scotland, with the new National Planning Framework 4 making much of it. Developers therefore need to look at how to manipulate it, and be sure to only consult on what they want to do. So, residents have been told about ‘a bright new dawn for Wyndford’ and asked ‘Do you want to have £73m invested in your community?’ Seventy-three million quid – what’s not to like? And, as a supporter of the campaign says, ‘far from being presented with options and ideas, or being allowed to influence the general direction of plans, residents were asked “what excites you most about the regeneration plans?”’. The only real option for investment in the wider community was demolition: ‘Do you support the regeneration plans including the demolition of the four low demand high rises?’ was how it was worded. And residents were misled when they were told that the flats were impossible to make energy-efficient.


‘Consulting’ like this on one option, with the path already set, is not consultation but boosterism, as are the glossy leaflets the estate is being deluged with.

Two things, to finish. First, we need to get better at valuing carbon. Our carbon analysis report found the impact of the demolition and rebuild is nearly twice that of retrofitting – at approximately 22,465 tonnes CO2 emitted for demolition against 12,098 tonnes CO2 for retrofitting. But the demolition itself had little impact, as much current evaluation sees no difference between carbon that makes a nice home, and carbon tipped into a landfill site – only the emissions of the demolition processes count, like the TNT strapped to the building and that wee mannie’s push on the plunger. We need to get smarter – our overlapping crises are about resource depletion and waste, as well as carbon and climate. We are talking to those leading the resistance to the downing of the M&S Building on Oxford Street and ITV Building on the Thames. We know the Mayor of London now has a framework requiring a Whole Life Carbon Assessment over 60 years, and that for demolition it requires the assessment be done with 95% recycling, which will always be expensive and, in itself, carbon-consuming. We need to spread such thinking around.

Lastly, we need to recognise our profession’s complicity in all this. Colleagues sometimes look askance at retrofit – not proper architecture, for where’s the glory – and the fees – to be gained from a landfill-rebuild cycle with its pontificating about style, green gizmos and good urbanism. And, here, we are right in-tune with our wider industry where, at least in the Scottish context I know, our bankers, construction conglomerates and government enablers whisper the term ‘dealflow’. This describes their wish for an unending river of public money to finance the regular decay, landfill and replacement of our public stock of homes, schools, hospitals and the like.

And I cannot be the only one who looks on some of the Profession’s parade of self-declared “Climate Champions” with incredulity – whose careers embrace wholesale demolition with, sometimes, a schtick based on the conspicuous, luxurious consumption of carbon (never use a bit of wood when aluminium will do), lecturing us about how wonderfully virtuous they are because their newbuild has some whizz-bang bit of low-energy kit in it.

The guys on the Wyndford Estate are our true Climate Champions.

 To sign the petition against Weatley’s proposals, visit: and keep in touch with the campaign to hear what comes next.