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Glasgow's urban wasteland

WHEN Lord Scarman, a British jurist noted for his social conscience, warned of Britain's becoming a slum society ``with all the human misery and degradation that implies,'' he could well have been thinking of Easterhouse and Roystonhill in Glasgow. The two communities, afflicted by terrible housing, social deprivation, high unemployment, and serious drug abuse, are not the only bad areas of Glasgow. But they are among the worst.

Glasgow underlines the critical housing problem facing Britain, which now spends a lower percentage of its gross national product on construction than any of its European Community counterparts do, and where one-fifth of the houses have been judged unfit to live in. Grim statistics, grim landscape

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Statistics for Easterhouse make grim reading: The density of this vast housing estate, which has a population of some 55,000, is seven times the average for Britain as a whole. Infant mortality, at 46.7 deaths per 1,000, is roughly five times the national average.

A predawn watch in Easterhouse brings a sense of foreboding. In the darkness, the ear is assaulted by the sounds of marital strife, of broken glass crunching under foot, of dogs running in packs, of water monotonously falling from clogged gutters and broken plumbing. The morning light cannot soften the brutal, dehumanizing landscape.

Easterhouse is an urban wasteland, full of rows of derelict buildings with missing tiles and boarded-up windows. They are the victims of family violence and despair, religious feuding (Irish Roman Catholics and Scottish Protestants), and rent arrears in a neighborhood where unemployment is 40 percent. These four-story tenement buildings cluster in empty quadrangles, with nothing but grass to fill the void. The families here are walled in by views of derelict buildings, ankle deep in piles of sodden garbage and discarded mattresses. `Wall-to-wall fungus'

There are no gardens, no landscaping, no playgrounds, no hedges or fences to hold neighborly chats over, no cozy curtains to hug trimly painted windows.

The approach to Roystonhill, another large housing complex on the periphery of Glasgow, a few miles from Easterhouse, is quite different. Here the dominant architecture shifts from low 3- and 4-story tenement buildings to 25-story orange high-rise ``tower blocks'' which lend color to the bleak surroundings.

Outwardly, Roystonhill, which features three monolithic skyscrapers, presents no obvious problems. But inside, the Roystonhill skyscrapers, which hold 144 units each, are almost awash with dampness and moisture. The result, says Eileen McCloy of the Roystonhill Tenants Association, is ``wall-to-wall fungus.''

For the tenants, the problems only get worse.

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``Here we are, nearly 20 years later,'' complains Mrs. McCloy, ``and these blocks have been plagued with dampness, water penetration, cracks, lift [elevator] breakdowns, an incompetent housing policy, and a serious lack of investment.''

The problems of dampness and water penetration are not exclusive to Roystonhill. A recent survey shows that as many as 14,000 council house (public housing) tenants in Glasgow face unacceptable levels of dampness, while thousands more are living in buildings with serious condensation problems.

Poverty in areas like Roystonhill takes many forms. At least a third of the working population is unemployed. Some 70 percent of the tenants live on supplementary benefit or welfare.

The butcher shops are a telltale sign of poverty. They sell only mince (hamburger), sausages, and pies. Many tenants, even if they could afford to, can't install washers and dryers because there isn't sufficient water pressure in the buildings. The alternative is a communal washhouse. The roof needs 100,000 ($150,000) worth of repair work, and the Glasgow Council can't afford to repair it.

Yet for low-income people in Glasgow, heating and lighting costs as much as 20 percent of their income. For the middle class, it's only 3 or 4 percent of income. Heating in Glasgow's cold, damp climate - five times the annual rainfall of southern England - has become part of yet another vicious economic cycle: ``fuel poverty.''

An unemployed man and woman with three children will get 65 ($100) a week on welfare, or what is known in Britain as supplemental benefit. But says McCloy, ``You have to take 25 a week off for electricity. That leaves 40 for the week to buy food, clothes, hire purchase [rent] of television, save some money, and with the water and dampness you've got to replace bedding and carpeting.'' Water, water everywhere

The heat, she insists, must stay on year round: ``In summer, you have to stop the mildew and fungal growth, and condensation and damp and water penetration; in winter, just to try to get warm.''

A ride up the capricious elevator (159 breakdowns in one month) to the 16th floor, to the flat of Thomas and Elizabeth Fraser, tells the story the moment the door is opened.

The stench of fungus and mildew grabs you by the throat the moment you enter the door.

Dampness and water have seeped into every room, pulling wallpaper off the walls almost as soon as it is put up, discoloring furniture, staining clothes, and leaving its malodorous mark on everything. Mrs. Fraser's small bedroom is so bad that clothes have been stored into suitcases and piled up in the living room. The walls, misty wet to the touch, have been scraped of all wallpaper and are entirely bare.

Fraser complains she has to keep the fire on all day. ``It costs too much.'' Yet her 75-year-old husband, who keeps close to the fire, has perpetually cold feet.

``When you take your stockings off at night,'' he says, ``you can feel the dampness come right through.''

The carpets feel spongy. Thomas Fraser then draws our attention to the bare entrance hall. ``Come here and look at the wee bubbles,'' he says. Dozens of glistening water droplets, the result of condensation, are oozing through the wall, making painting or wallpapering impossible.

Sam Webb, an architect from Canterbury in England, is an expert on high-rise buildings. He has completed surveys in Glasgow, Leeds, Sheffield, and London, and says of this Roystonhill block, ``It's the worst housing I've seen in Britain.''

``You can smell the spores in the building,'' maintains Webb, who associates the bad living conditions with a very high incidence of respiratory disorders. Problems go unattended

Yet the problem goes largely unattended in the corridors of power. ``It's impossible even with photos of black mold to convince them. It's so unrealistic to them,'' says Thomas Markus, professor emeritus of building science at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

The government's cutback in public expenditure on housing, and its preference for private-sector building, has hit this strongly working-class city severely. Private development has brought some striking success, particularly in Easterhouse, where rehabilitated houses show what can be done to abandoned rented property.

But private ownership is beyond the means of most council tenants. Some 83 percent of the 170,000 tenants in public housing in Glasgow have gross incomes below $8,000 a year.

In recent years, though, both capital investment in council housing, and government grants to public-sector housing, have been sharply curtailed. Glasgow, as the largest urban housing authority in Britain, has been the hardest hit - 58 percent of its housing stock is in the public sector. No money set aside for repair

Glasgow's housing problems have come to a head. Although millions of pounds were spent on throwing huge skyscrapers up during the great public-housing boom in the 1960s and '70s, millions of pounds were not set aside to repair and maintain them. The 297 high-rise apartments that dominate Glasgow's skyline pose a staggering repair bill for the city.

``It's like having 300 vehicles all breaking down and needing repair at the same time,'' says Bailie (senior councilor) James Mclean, convenor of the Housing Committee of the Glasgow District Council. The total cost of repairs is put at $918 million, and merely to make buildings safe, and wind- and water-tight, would cost $127 million a year for the next five years. A lot of the system-built buildings, he says, were largely untested.

While Mr. McLean believes the dampness problem at Roystonhill can be solved by a new heating system, which he says the tenants are resisting, Mrs. McCloy of the Roystonhill Tenants Association disagrees. She says the problem goes beyond dampness and water penetration to structural deficiencies she says the city has concealed.

McCloy has in her possession a copy of a city engineer's report which asserts that Roystonhill's buildings do not meet minimum structural requirements.

She is adamant that the three tower blocks in her area should be pulled down. But Bailie McLean won't hear of it. ``They [the tenants] have refused the heating system. What these handful of activists are really looking for is demolition of the blocks. That's out of the question. Where are we going to put them?''

City officials' undoubted fear is that once they start demolishing the blocks at Roystonhill, they're on a slippery slope toward demolishing the 29 other such blocks in the city.

Webb's view is that simply patching up structural deficiencies invariably invites greater problems later on.

Yet David Comley, deputy director of housing in the Glasgow District Couincil, seems to indicate that Glasgow is not inflexible on the issue of bad buildings.

He says, ``We may have to say at the end of the day that we have no answer. It's not impossible we will have to demolish some blocks.''

The last article appeared Nov. 7.

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