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Drugs and Sadness in Glasgow's High-Rise Ghettos

The Barracks is one of the most deprived estates in the UK – but it wasn't always so miserable.
October 21, 2013, 12:35pm

Glasgow's Wyndford estate

"There is a tendency for alcoholics and junkies to find each other," says Sean Damer, a Glasgow sociologist. "They bring in their homeless pals and know where they can get legless at 10 o’clock in the morning." The Wyndford estate, known as the Barracks, is one of those places – "an exemplar of everything going wrong with social housing in Britain today," according to Sean. "The Daily Mail and the Sun love to demonise places like this, but this is people’s lives. They have no choice but to make the best of it."


In the 1960s, this was a very different housing scheme. People remember it as a place defined by aspiration and community spirit, a place where you could leave your doors open and families looked out for each other. New residents felt they had “died and gone to heaven”. When many of Glasgow's other tenement blocks were demolished in the 70s, people fought to be allocated a flat on the Wyndford estate. Three references were required – one from the police – before a person was even considered.

Then came the 80s. Estates were sold off and Thatcherite housing legislation, particularly the Tenants Rights Act, seriously limited the powers that housing associations had to evict antisocial tenants. Where once a potential resident's connection to the local area was an important factor in their bid to secure a flat, the Tories' right-to-buy scheme placed a new emphasis on the power of private markets.

In the years since, long-term residents of the Barracks have seen a dramatic change in their surroundings. Now, half the adult population are unemployed and it is in the top 2 percent of the most deprived estates in the UK. The problems are concentrated in four tower blocks on the edge of the Barracks, each standing 26-storeys tall, in which substance abuse is rife – most popular are cocaine, heroin and downers, like diazepam.

"You could ask for drugs right now and they’d be with you in a second," says David, 47, whose balcony overlooks the part of the estate where scenes from Trainspotting were filmed. "There are druggies everywhere. Some of them don’t even live here – people sleep on the landings. I’ve lived in Manchester, Liverpool, Dublin and London and the so-called 'hard men' in these places don’t know they’re born.”

Local man Stephen Cafolla, 44.

This is by no means a problem that is confined to the Barracks. Areas of Glasgow suffer a depth of poverty that is rarely encountered in other parts of the UK. Recent figures released by the Office of National Statistics show that this is the ninth consecutive year that Glasgow has been in the top five workless areas in the UK. In some parts, almost 9 out of 10 male adults are on benefits, while children brought up in social housing now have far fewer life chances than they did half a century ago. They are also more likely to suffer from mental health problems.


Shockingly, life expectancy for men is 54 – almost 20 years less than in the city's more affluent districts just a few miles away. It’s pretty grim and across the board Glaswegian men die young. In the absence of any concrete explanation, researchers and theorists have pointed to an ambiguous "Glasgow effect" – a kind of intrinsic despair that has been passed down through generations since the Industrial revolution and that manifests itself in drug abuse, heavy drinking, a poor diet, ill health and suicide. You could argue that it's also a handy metaphor for a government that is dealing with a problem it has no idea how to fix. With the bedroom tax and other austerity cuts cleaving more than £250m from the Glasgow economy, it's likely that the 36,000 children in Glasgow already living below the poverty line will be soon be joined by others.

Miss Simpson, a resident of 13 years, says, “I just keep my head down, I don’t want to notice it.”

On the Barracks, all the flats in the 26-storey blocks are bedsits that were originally designed for pensioners. However, most of them died in the 80s and 90s and since then, the imperative of the private housing association has been to accept anyone to secure a rent.

Alex, 84, has lived here for 47 years. “When it was first opened there was a queue to get in. Now, they let in everybody. It’s a huge shame, people don’t know each other any more.” Miss Simpson, a resident of 13 years, agrees. “I just keep my head down, I don’t want to notice it.” Another man is picking up litter as part of a community payback scheme. He used to live on the estate and has recently been released from prison. He says, “It was always good, but then it just went crazy."

Sociologist Damer, who's written a feasibility study on the future of the Barracks, talked to me about the problem of drug abuse on the estate. “If people are off their faces, they don’t look after themselves. They are so busy feeding their habit they are not concerned with cleaning the landing or caring for their flat. In the high-density multi-storey flats, for instance, refuse is a big problem. If you are out of your face, dead dogs and whatnot go down the chutes. That happens.”

Jim, 50, who has lived on the 14th floor of one block since 1965, says, "I’ve had a family with a heroin habit across the landing and before them, it was my neighbour from childhood, the contrast was enormous. The addicts wrecked the place. Windows got smashed; there was graffiti and threats. There’s no support. When the caretakers leave at three, we fly alone.”


Every Friday afternoon, a charity bus gives out food and offers a rehab service. Michael Sturrock, coordinator for the Teen Challenge service, says, “We target deprived areas, areas with a high rate of addiction. It became apparent in the last six months that there was a real need on this estate. Each week, the bus is packed. There isn't enough being done to help these people.”

William, 33, has lived in the estate for three years. “It was happy, but it’s not any more. People are getting drunk and taking drugs on the stairs. It gets worse every day. There are too many drugs coming in."

Some of the other tall concrete slabs in the city are due to be demolished by 2017. Many think that this is an option for the Barracks, so far has the estate fallen since its halcyon days. “The bedsit flats are not suitable. Either they must come down or they must be reconfigured," says Patricia Ferguson, Labour MSP for Glasgow Maryhill. "They need investment and they need to be made into decent housing in which people want to live." Ferguson thinks that the coalition is guilty of social neglect: “I don’t think the government understands the area and I suspect it cares even less.”

Others feel differently. David MacKenzie, from local housing authority Cube, says, “We have confidence in the estate – we know it has a long-term future. It has its share of poverty and unemployment like many parts of Glasgow, but it’s definitely an area on the up.” After decades of little or no investment since the 80s, they say a regeneration project is now underway.

Unlike London, for residents on Glasgow estates, regeneration isn’t about middle-class outsiders moving in to force out native working-class populations. For people here, this is about making life less nightmarish. It’s about new heating systems to combat dampness and fuel poverty, money advisors to help tenants on the breadline and janitor schemes for young locals who can’t find work. The police have increased their patrols in the area and extended the CCTV systems.

However, it is too much for them to kick in every door in the hope of finding drugs. For many residents in the high-rise blocks, this is too little, too late. Comments range from, “I need outta here, this is the absolute gutter, pure shite,” and, "You wouldn’t put your dog in it,” to, “They're cleaning it up, but it’s a hard, unforgiving place." Whatever the view, for now, for many on the Barracks and other estates in Scotland, the hope of finding a job and a better future remains a distant one.


Follow Tess on Twitter: @tessreidy

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