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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.