Housing in Liverpool, and me: 1975-1981

Some more memories of my early days in housing, following my experiences in Liverpool City Council earlier in the 70s. More like a campaign than working.

So it’s late 1975 and I’ve finally managed to talk my way into Liverpool Housing Trust. I’m still at University, but my sociology degree isn’t taking up all of my time or interest, so I’m happy to start volunteering for LHT.

‘The Trust’ as everyone calls it, had been helped into existence ten years earlier by Shelter, part of the reaction to the housing crisis highlighted by Ken Loach’s film, ‘Cathy Come Home.’ Most of the work in these early days has been around the Canning and Granby areas of Liverpool 8.

A great deal of this area has been blighted by Liverpool City Council’s plans (never realised) to build an inner ring road through what had been a much larger Canning area.

60s blight in a section of Falkner Street that no longer exists.

60s blight in a section of Falkner Street that no longer exists.

Blight spreading to the whole Canning area.

Blight spreading to the whole Canning area.

I arrive in Falkner Square when there are, from memory, around 25 people working there, on the ground floors and basements of numbers 38 and 39 (with tenants living upstairs). But my first workplace is in fact round the corner, in 78 Canning Street. I am the ‘Development Department’ along with my first boss, Jack Coutts. We are separated from the rest of the Trust by derelict 40 Falkner Square, which won’t be done up for a couple of years yet. Nearby, the terraced streets of Granby are relatively settled compared to Canning.

Granby, full of houses and shops.

Granby, full of houses and shops.

But as I’m arriving The Trust’s horizons are about to widen. There’s been a Housing Act passed in 1974 which for the first time looks like bringing serious money into refurbishing houses. (Up to this time, for example, LHT has been ‘improving’ houses in Granby for around £2,000. Simply not enough, and storing up big problems for the future.)

As well as the Housing Act, Liverpool City has started its ‘Housing Action Areas’ policy, to determinedly ‘do up’ targetted areas of streets. And at the same time, and hardly a coincidence, several large scale private landlords have decided to sell up their housing portfolios and leave the field clear to LHT and the other Liverpool housing associations to do all the improvement works they were never going to get round to.

The conditions we found. Rented from a private landlord in Walton.

The conditions we found. Rented from a private landlord in Walton.

So I walk into a place that’s not only got a reputation as the great campaigning housing association. It’s also one that’s about to be given the means to do the things it says most need doing. So far we’ve concentrated on emergency housing for people in truly desperate situations. Now our job widens to renovating whole areas, potentially for thousands of people.

The next five years are as exciting as ‘having a job’ will ever prove to be for me. Because it’s not really like ‘having a job’ at all, it’s more like being in a campaign.

As a volunteer my job is ‘all sorts’ and it doesn’t much change when LHT start paying me in July 1976. As people will say when we make the films about these days years later:

“What we were doing then had never been done before. We were literally making it up as we went along.”

Small teams, locally based, in the north of the city too now. ‘Area Management Officers’ covering very small ‘patches’ where they not only deal with housing management, but are also integral to the huge ‘decanting’ programmes, where we work out the best ways to help move people in and out of houses as the houses are done up in their hundreds each year.

Outside Falkner Square, the South team.

Outside Falkner Square, the South team. Tom Dacey on the left, by the pillar near the front.

Outside Christopher Street in Walton, the North team.

Outside Christopher Street in Walton, the North team. Andy Snowden on the left (as you’d expect)

It’s all so intense and so are we. In my memories we laugh all the time, argue all the time and work all the time. Even Friday nights when we’ll take over the whole room in a pub, we argue about housing.

The ‘management’ is the most benign management of any organisation I will ever know. So we set up a union group and argue with them. And it works out well. We relentlessly drive up standards all round. In the end, Dave Bebb, who’s arrived from Shelter to be the new ‘manager’ of the place will boast to journalists ( to huge derision from the rest of us, but here I am writing it down now) that ‘you can smell the commitment’ in The Trust.

The Shelter boys: Dave Bebb, Neil McIntosh (then Director) and Des Wilson (founding Director0 outside Falkner Square, late seventies.

The Shelter boys: Dave Bebb with Neil McIntosh (then Director) and Des Wilson (founding Director) outside Falkner Square, late seventies.

I’m particularly friendly with the ‘North’ and ‘South’ managers Andy Snowden and Tom Dacey when they arrive to run the new area based teams. And the three of us hatch a plan to get one of these new ‘mini computers’ to do rent accounting and help us generally manage things. No one’s done it before, so when we propose that I should go out and get one – at the age of 24 and knowing virtually nothing about computers – the answer is of course ‘Yes.’ It  usually is.

Me at 24, showing Jane Bush, Cathy Wiggins and Lorna Ely a pile of paper. Behind us sits the computer, all 10 megabytes of it.

Me at 24, showing Jane Bush, Cathy Wiggins and Lorna Ely a pile of paper. Behind us sits the computer, all 10 megabytes of it.

And I could and no doubt will write more about the wonderful people we take on and the adventures we have together in these Housing Action years.

But to return particularly to Liverpool 8 as the 70s turn into the 80s, outside the friendly doors of LHT, life is getting increasingly hard. A young black woman, Jackie Elliott, who’s been in my team for a couple of years has been telling us each spring about her brother and his friends all being ’rounded up and taken away to Risley (a remand centre) for the summer.’ Using the hated ‘sus’ law Liverpool’s chief police officer, Ken Oxford, is enraging the black population with his policies of blatant harassment and discrimination.

And in the summer of 1981 it all explodes. And you can read the story of the 1981 Liverpool 8 riots told much better than I could tell it here.

And we recover. We all recover (Though some of the places will take years). We all go on the ‘Oxford out’ march and the police chief is eventually shuffled off stage. There is a judicial inquiry and Ray Quarless and I are the witnesses from the The Trust. And institutionalised racism is the verdict.

But in my Liverpool, there is ‘before’ the riots and ‘after the riots.’

The morning after the riots, 1981.

The morning after the riots, 1981.

And years later when we make a film of these years for the Trust we buy some riots footage from ITN. And I put together this music to go under it. An attempt to express my sadness at what had to happen in our beloved place.

Finally, because it’s his first appearance in a blog post by me, I want to draw your attention to someone in the picture of the North team above. The fourth figure from the right, lurking at the back of Andy, Barbara, Maria, Carol, Joan, Lynne, Carol, Helen, Pauline, Robin and Miranda – looking like he doesn’t want to be there, is Phil Macaulay. In these years it was said that he and I were joined at the hip. We were the main union reps but it was much more than that. We laughed, we argued, we drank beer for England, and I learned so much from the most intelligent and cultured person I have ever known.

A great friend to so many of us at LHT. I dedicate these memories of these years to Phil Macaulay, 1950 – 2003.

Two years after it was  written in December 2014, this post began attracting a good deal of attention, reflected in the comments below and in many exchanges on Twitter including this one between Tom Murtha, Jon Lord of Bolton at Home and me about housing associations and their values.HAs and values

14 thoughts on “Housing in Liverpool, and me: 1975-1981

  1. Carol Schoie

    Don’t usually write on here but loved this Ronnie – you could have been a professional writer. Then again you would have missed out on the fab years at the Trust. Everyone from those early days agrees that it was great place to work (and probably still is). I always felt proud of being in a really useful and progressive organization which also happened to be good fun with lots of like minded people. Not known anything like it since!! I have said to Dave Bebb, more than once when pissed, that I had a great ‘upbringing’ at LHT. Once I got a Housing Officer job I remember not liking weekends too much because I was away from work!!

    Concur completely with your sentiments about Phil – they are the reasons I found him great company; a lovely, warm sociable and interesting guy who, like the rest of us, liked a few drinks. Feel a bit nostalgic and sad now.

    Anyway, chin up I’m off to a Ceilidh tonight – Val Owen is in the band, Miranda and Eileen will be there too – a sort of mini LHT re-united evening!!

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Thanks Schoie, lovely to hear from you!

      Glad you think I’ve summed the place up right and glad to hear you’re out with some of them tonight. (For other readers, Carol is fourth from left on the North picture above, and Miranda is on the far right (though never in real life of course).

      Trust you’ll raise a glass for Phil tonight, if only quietly to yourself xx

      Reply
  2. Robin Lawler

    Ronnie
    Great blog. It brings it all back to me. The hard work, the arguments, the drinking & the absolute determination to make a difference to people’s lives- which I think we did.
    The Trust was a fantastic grounding for my career in housing which still continues more than 30 years on!
    God bless Phil
    Robin Lawler

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Lovely to hear from you Robin. And glad you think I’ve summed up the LHT of those days accurately.

      Imagine the trouble you’d have got in if we’d been able to see the future with you at the helm of the Chartered Institute of Housing? There would have been a formal debate in the Roscoe about it, and you’d have been mandated to go and change the world in the following ways…

      Reply
  3. Mike Gaskell

    Ah, memories of the time and place !
    I was in the same space 74 – 77 when (fresh from St Helens and with undreamed of wealth in the form of a full maintenance grant along with all my fees paid) I was just along the way at the University law faculty in Myrtle Street slowly taking my first steps into the utterly alien legal world, which I wanted to join “so that I could help people, that would lead me too into the world of housing.

    I used to run round L8 (training to compete at Mather Avenue – remember that ? ) and when I tell people now they look at me as if I must have been mad. But L8 was not quite the bad place which subsequent media coverage of the riots would portray.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      I didn’t then and never have thought L8 was a bad place. In the late 70s and early 80s it was viciously policed by Ken Oxford and his racist thugs and given no consideration whatsoever by the zealots of Militant who were controlling the City Council. So it was little surprise to many of us when the people of the place decided enough was enough.

      Reply
  4. tommurtha

    As you know Ronnie I started my career in housing at about the same time. 1976 in Leicester with the great John Perry. I was a community working in the urban renewal team. The atmosphere was very similar. We were all young radical and out to change the world. Some of us are still trying.

    Your situation at LHT was not unique but still very special. I will write my story one day. There are bits already out there but nothing as comprehensive as yours. I remember some of the people you mention even though I did not come to Liverpool until 1988 when I joined MIH.

    I would urge everyone in housing to read this. It paints a picture of a time we have almost lost when housing associations still had a heart and soul and values. Sadly this is beginning to change. Even more sadly the needs of the homeless, poor and marginalised have not changed. If anything they are greater now than in the ’70s. If housing associations do not respond to this challenge as they did then. Who will?

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      Thank you for this Tom. Yes we never felt we were alone in those days. Just within Liverpool us and CDS and MIH felt more or less like individual bits of the same place and were genuinely best friends with each other.

      So it has saddened me, working recently with a homelessness charity in Birkenhead, to be told that for them and their clients housing associations are ‘no use.’ That they have sympathetic private landlords more willing to help out homeless people than any of the local housing associations. ‘Heart, soul and values’ as you mention, in severe danger of having disappeared altogether.

      And yet I know as well as you do that there are still wonderful and committed people working in housing associations. And that while one small charity in Birkenhead can’t solve homelessness, housing associations could do so much more, if they so chose.

      By the way, having credited Shelter above for their role in the creation of LHT, it’s only fair we should give HACT (and you as its current Chair) full credit for giving LHT its first ever founding funding.

      Reply
  5. Rob Hart

    Hi Ronnie I have just retired after an incredible 13 years stint in the Housing and Wellbeing Team at LHT. Really interested to skim through your blog especially relating to LHT. I remember your video at 40 years. It must have been an amazing time to work there in the seventies. My late father Tom Hart was a HALO in the councils North City Office in Everton during that time. I think the point I joined the LHT it had begun to adopt a more structured modus operandi although for quite a while I was given a fairly free reign to assist our more vulnerable tenants. My former line manager Jon Metcalfe is an incredibly innovative guy with a real commitment to Health and Wellbeing. Don’t know if it was always the case, but housing seems to have been charged, along with health, especially in the present climate with filling a lot of the gaps that have presented themselves as social care budgets have been decimated by the current government. Hope my comment are relevant and have bookmarked your blog.

    Reply

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