They were imaginative ideas in their day, those better-class council

housing schemes set in some nice areas. But there are sad lessons to be

learned from the story of places like Glasgow's Merrylee. GLASGOW was

early in municipal housing: it had to be. Glasgow's housing crisis had

existed for more than 50 years. By the early 1930s the imaginative plans

for municipal housing which the then Glasgow Corporation entertained

were in force. The result was Mosspark, Knightswood, some isolated areas

in small pockets elsewhere.

They were models for other local authorities' endeavours. They weren't

exactly Hampstead Garden Suburb. They weren't even Welwyn Garden City.

They most certainly weren't up-market and they weren't bought houses

either. The estates concerned were in hitherto greenfield sites and the

houses had inside lavatories and baths, and were ideal for the

better-off working classes who could afford the rates but who, in their

own tradition, did not buy houses but rented.

Glasgow's experiment was echoed elsewhere in Scotland, most noticeably

in Ayrshire, where the local hegemony of the Socialists ensured that a

housing boom took place with very low rents indeed.

But the real housing crisis which Scotland and especially Glasgow

faced came after the Second World War. Part of the very idea of crisis

originated down south in Coventry and London and any place in which the

bombing had obliterated the old areas.

Glasgow even then had priority because the Second City had housing

stock which was impossible -- the worst slums, it was considered, in

Europe. Glasgow was, then, the third world. And after the war housing

became paramount in the minds of the political parties, Tory or Labour

or other.

There is still no excuse for the dreadful ''schemes'' which the

councils all over Scotland built, nor for the virtual destruction of the

communities which then existed, and architects and planners who

collaborated in the disgrace of that building programme have no right to

complain of the calumnies which have since been showered upon them.

But there was one Glasgow ''scheme'', plan, call it what you will,

which focused on the political considerations of that time. The scheme

was called Merrylee.

Merrylee was planned in an area of Glasgow which bordered on the douce

and respectable area of Cathcart, and on the very well-set area of

Newlands. Further out were Clarkston and Whitecraigs, Netherlee,

Giffnock, Newton Mearns. The last thing the local residents wanted was a

housing scheme, with ''workies'' coming in, and their families. Bad

enough it was that there was the daytime presence of the proletariat in

the nearby Weir's Works. To live cheek by jowl with the lower orders was

an outrage.

It was 1950 and the heroes had just returned from a war, but devil the

bit that the same warriors should be shovelling their coal into their

baths next door to you. Glasgow Corporation at that time had a Tory --

then called, euphemistically, Progressive and Moderate -- council. In

all, 622 houses were to be built, by the Direct Labour Department, in

this leafy area of the south-side of Glasgow and in 1951 housing

convener McPherson Raitt, a Conservative, proposed that the houses

should be sold, not rented. It was reckoned that Glasgow at that time

had 48,000 homeless. Said a local baillie, Jimmy Duncan: ''If the

homeless in Glasgow marched three abreast, and a yard interval between

ranks, they would stretch five-and-a-half miles long.''

In well-off Newlands lived the Forsyth family, with their department

stores, the Cochrane family with their grocer's shops throughout the

country. The big houses had wealthy stockbrokers, lawyers, businessmen.

The workers who were to build the houses in this pleasant backwater in

the city were to be, initially, denied a place in the very buildings

they erected.

The houses were to be sold off, for profit surely, but for more too.

To keep the workers out. If the residences -- and they were not very

prepossessing at that, grey, harled, boxes with three bedrooms at the

most -- were to be built at all in that salubrious area where the toffs

lived then they would go to lowly clerks or grubby shopkeepers. Bought

houses would house, at the end of the day, bought people.

But the lower orders didn't see the situation that way and indeed

there was a marching, for the Merrylee ''scandal'' brought about massive

demonstrations on the streets of Glasgow. ''Strikes, mass agitation,

deputations, constant press publicity, and the eventual toppling of a

Tory-controlled town council''. Thus a very recent pamphlet, Sell And Be

Damned, in which Ned Donaldson and Les Forster, two life-long Labour

activists involved in the Merrylee situation itself, described the

furore which broke over the heads of the 1951 Tory Glasgow Corporation.

It was perhaps hardly as dramatic as they suggest. But one thing is

true: it brought down the Progressive-Moderates and ensconced a Labour

administration in Glasgow for -- what seems like forever.

There were indeed delegations from Harland's Clyde Foundry in Govan

and work stopped there. Maryhill, Possilpark, Weirs of Cathcart workers

themselves, all turned out in their droves. The building trade threw

down the tools. It is difficult today to comprehend the anger which

arose throughout the labour and trade union movement.

John Smith's Labour Party objectives are a far cry from what the then

socialist movement saw as the right to housing -- free (sort of),

low-rented, open to all, sanitary, healthy, but above all, available.

None of the above factors would be argued against by even the most

vociferous right-winger today. Then it was different. Homelessness was

widespread and many Glaswegians lived in conditions which would pass for

those of refugee camps. There were of course Displaced Persons

throughout Europe then and Glasgow could match the despair of those


But there was a corollary to that. The first one was that the

demonstrators and activists won their battle. Merrylee houses were not

sold off: they were allocated to those eligible for council house

tenancy. The bourgeoisie lost the fight to retain their ghetto

existence. The Labour Party romped home in the May, 1952 elections and

have retained control ever since.

Some individual defeats occurred. Ned Donaldson, a legendary and

doughty fighter for workers' rights and other issues dear to an old

socialist warhorse's heart, was sacked from his job. So was Les Forster.

Jimmy Lamb, a prominent activist of that time, was paid off. All are

still around and they bear their grievances lightly and with dignity.

But the result of the triumphant fight against the sale of houses at a

time when a housing shortage was truly critical has been rather

different from the triumph which it was then seen to be, or perhaps

should have been.

Today Merrylee is quiet. As they say in the cowboy films: too quiet.

Today's Merrylee came out of the tenants who first peopled it: the

labour aristocracy itself. For the middle classes who had so vehemently

opposed the building of the houses from the start, and tried to sell

them off to bank clerks and poujadiste shopkeepers and minor librarians

and such like, got their own way, even with a Labour council, for, to

assuage the fears of the powerful haute-bourgeoisie of Glasgow, the

Labour administration embarked on an even more demanding set of rules

for tenancy than they had in the other good council estates such as

Knightswood or Mosspark. They simply invented new ground rules.

Desirable tenants. And desirable tenants were subject to criteria so

Byzantine for what constituted, in Socialist and Tory parlance alike,

''Decent People'', that it was impenetrable to the majority of homeless

Glaswegians. Labrynthine questionnaires were sent out. If you had

children who had ''stayed on'' at school it was in your favour: a child

at university put you on the list in seconds. A skilled job, and you

were quids in. Not just a record of no rent arrears to your previous

landlord was needed. Inspections of your existing house would reveal

whether or not you kept a clean close, washed and red-leaded. Neighbours

were sounded out.

It could have come from a play by Gogol. And it was to have lasting

effects on tenancy policy. For worst of all, it was an underground,

secret and secretive, policy.

The tenants of Merrylee were good tenants, no doubt about it. Their

children did stay on at school. This very newspaper is full of people

who indeed washed in the Blood of the Holy Lamb of Merrylee Meritocracy.

I know. My father was the Merrylee Primary School janitor, remembered

yet by the Merrylee people. But that was many years ago.

Merrylee Primary now houses pupils from all walks of life but

especially the middle-class walk of it. The locals prefer to send their

children there before putting them into Hutchie or Park School for Girls

or wherever you send your children when the time comes to put an end to

meritocracy itself: this is Socialism with a pragmatic face.

Merrylee headmistress Jean Symington is a well-respected headteacher

of the school, and so she should be, but it is a far cry from teaching

in Balornock Primary where she started off; my late mother was the

secretary there. Balornock these many years ago was a far cry from what

it is today, with all the problems of the deprived areas they were not

meant to be, a different place from long back. The difficulty is that

Merrylee is not: it has not changed at all. Still the same Labour

aristocracy-middle-class enclave it was 40 years ago when it first

started and what of that? A lot really.

When I visited the area recently, many years after I once lived there,

it was not the lively place I recollect at all. Lively? It is old and

the tenants are old, all of them. When I lived there children thronged

the streets. Football was endemic. One of the footballers in fact was

Kenny Dalglish: he is a Merrylee boy. Sandy Fraser, social work supremo,

lived next door. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, this blatt's travel

correspondent himself, came from this hotbed of working class

achievement. Today's Merrylee is different. There is no football in the

streets: there is nothing on the street, not even people.

TODAY Merrylee is falling apart. The dreadful problems, societal and

otherwise, of Pollok, Nitshill, Possil, Castlemilk, Easterhouse, The

Drum, have been highlighted, and millions have been spent on

refurbishment in a perhaps forlorn hope that the people there will

behave themselves.

In Knightswood, Mosspark, Merrylee, people behave impeccably. The

result is that there is no investment in such areas at all. The houses

are unpainted, the railings and fences are untouched. The gardens are

not even noticed by the Parks Department and the people are too old --

for nobody ever leaves Merrylee until they shuffle off the mortal coil

-- to look after the ever-burgeoning hedges, blades of grass, untended


Merrylee is old: the old people are incapable of replenishing the

scheme itself for the socialist dream of a new society has produced that

new society: the ageing population has sons and daughters who have gone

on to what they see as better things; on to big bought houses, far away

from Merrylee. In short, this was an experiment which worked too well.

This was the Brave New World really, the one my father thought would

change us all. It has changed us all, too. Sadly this half-world of old

houses, old people, old dreams, is a testament to what visions are made

of; how they eventually turn out.

I have no answer to old dreams and the tousled greying realities which

places like Merrylee represent. I shall be old myself, soon. But I still

don't want to go home in the dark.