Last week’s post looked at the history of Clay Cross – its longer-term politics as well as the commitment to working-class interests and record of practical achievement of its new Labour council elected in 1963. This post examines how housing and rents became central to that struggle and why its 1972 Rents Rebellion has been such a unique episode in Labour and local government history.
Before 1979, housing was seen as local government’s most important role and here Clay Cross acted boldly. The Council had been quietly buying up the town’s substandard houses for some time, demolishing them or making them fit for purpose as appropriate. By 1971, over 550 slums had been cleared, 95 per cent of the total.
In July 1972, they went further by determining to buy every privately rented home in the area. As Councillor Arthur Wellon stated: (1)
On this Council we like to think of ourselves as basic Socialists. We regard housing here as a social service, not as something the private sector can profit from.
Two hundred homes were transferred from the National Coal Board that year. The Urban District, with a population a little under 10,000, had 1340 council homes, housing around half its population.
At this point, the Council’s rents – at £1 12s including rates – were the lowest in the country. Arrears were not pursued through the courts but by a personal visit from the chair and vice-chair of the Housing Committee. Often they found tenants not claiming the benefits to which they were entitled and the policy proved effective as well as humane.
The ultimate test of these principles came with the passing of the Conservative Government’s Housing Finance Act in July 1972. At a time when unemployment in the town stood at around 20 per cent, the legislation required the Council to raise rents by £1 a week. In September, the Council formally resolved to reject all provisions of the new law.
That stance was overwhelmingly endorsed by local voters in the Council elections which followed and backed up by a rent strike called in 1973 supported by 84 per cent of tenants. When Mr Skillington – the hapless Housing Commissioner sent in by Whitehall to collect the increased rents – arrived from Henley-on-Thames he faced complete non-cooperation, refused office space and staff. He withdrew a few months later having failed to collect a penny of the increase.
But the law pursued its course more inexorably. In July 1973, the courts found Clay Cross’s eleven councillors– Arthur Wellon, Charlie Bunting, Graham Smith, Eileen Wholey, George Goodfellow, Terry Asher, David Nuttall, David Percival, Roy Booker, David Skinner and Graham Skinner; working men and women, good trades unionists – guilty of ‘negligence and misconduct’ and they were fined a total of £6,985 plus £2,000 costs.
When the High Court rejected their final appeal in 1974, Charlie Bunting spoke for them all: (2)
We have one judge, not those three in there; that’s our conscience and our conscience is clear.
The eleven were disqualified from office and personally surcharged and new elections ordered. In the by-elections which followed in February, 1974, a 71.5 per cent turn-out returned ten of a ‘second eleven’ of Labour candidates pledged to pursue resistance; the other lost by just two votes.
Clay Cross Urban District Council, however, had just four weeks to run; it was abolished in 1974 – not through some proto-Thatcherite spite but by the general reorganisation of local government which took place that year. The Housing Finance Act was implemented by North East Derbyshire District Council though Clay Cross itself continued to resist. [Please also read the comment below added by the former clerk of the Clay Cross Parish Council – the only council officer directly affected – who was fined and dismissed for his part in the struggle.]
Of 46 councils initially refusing to implement the Act, Clay Cross had been the only one to maintain its opposition to the bitter end – as Graham Skinner says, ultimately ‘a futile gesture’ but a necessary one.
In answer to the question ‘why Clay Cross?’, I hope I have provided some answers here. This was a distinct and close-knit town; some outsiders even call it isolated though I’m sure that’s not a local perception. Its mining and manufacturing heritage runs deep – a history of hardship and resistance, of trades unionism and working-class politics rooted deep in its community.
From this – and through the ideals and activism of its elected members – emerged a council understood not as a distant, administrative body but as the heart and (in the very best sense) vanguard of its community: (3)
The men and women who were elected to serve on the council were not remote figures who did what the bureaucrats told them to do, but representatives of the working people of the town who kept faith with their electors. It was as simple as that.
All this, of course, is hard to replicate: unusual enough then and another world now as, from the 80s, we have witnessed working-class communities up and down the country ravaged by de-industrialisation and mass unemployment and the collateral damage these have wrought.
The days of steady, secure employment and strong trade unions forthright in its defence seem distant; the possibility of work and politics as proud and progressive badges of local identity long gone; a simple respect for working people (and for those, through no fault of their own, without work) as the backbone of our nation disappeared, sometimes derided.
And, to prevent this becoming a pointless exercise in sepia-tinted nostalgia, let’s acknowledge positive changes too – more people better educated, new opportunities and higher living standards for some (even as many of those advances have ground to a halt in recent years).
At any rate, Clay Cross will be hard to repeat. But it does hold lessons. I don’t knock councillors, nor am I cynical about the energy and good intentions they generally bring to their work but Labour councils have become too willing to work with the contemporary grain of neo-liberal politics, scrapping within its interstices to wrest such small progressive victories as it allows.
This is seen most powerfully in the housing field where a proud council housing legacy is being squandered and ‘regeneration’ has become a tool to destroy communities in order to build ‘affordable’ homes which are nothing of the kind.
There remains a lesson from Clay Cross, not of an old politics but of a renewed politics where politicians are not technocratic figures managing the agenda of the day but true representatives of their communities spearheading a politics from below – a politics of, from and for the extraordinary ‘ordinary’ people who constitute the mass of our country.
Let’s leave the last word with Charlie Bunting again: (4)
I don’t think for one bloody minute we are heroes. I think we are doing our job – and that’s to help the working class, the cream of the nation.
(1) Michael Ewing, ‘The Home Truths: a Special Investigation into Housing’, Daily Mirror, 6 July 1972
(2) David Skinner and Julia Langdon, The Story of Clay Cross (1974)
(3) Skinner and Langdon, The Story of Clay Cross
(4) Paula James and Jill Evans, ‘Working-class Rebels with a Cause’, Daily Mirror, 3 December 1973
The 1974 ITV documentary Confrontation at Clay Cross is on YouTube.
For more on the Clay Cross Rents Rebellion, the best source is the book by David Skinner and Julia Langdon. Online accounts can be found on the Dronfield Blather blog and, from a more revolutionary perspective, ‘How Clay Cross Fought the Tories‘ on the website of the Socialist Party.
Neil Barnett, ‘Local Government and the local state; from crisis to crisis’, a paper for the panel Austerity, the Local State and Public Services at the PSA Annual Conference, 2013 also tackles the question of why Clay Cross’s resistance has proved so unique.