This is the last of four posts telling the story of council housing in Walsall. Beyond any local interest, it reflects the dynamics of a wider national history of council housing. That fuller story will be told in my forthcoming book Municipal Dreams: the Rise and Fall of Council Housing which will be published by Verso in April 2018.
We left Walsall’s council housing last week at its peak – literally so in terms of the high-rise blocks built in the late sixties but numerically too when, in the early 1980s, the Council managed around 42,000 homes in the expanded borough. This final post concentrates on the politics of council housing in more recent decades, including some radical attempts to decentralise local government with an idiosyncratically local flavour.
Firstly, however, Right to Buy. The sale of council homes to sitting tenants legislated by Margaret Thatcher in 1981 saw the Council’s housing stock decline dramatically but it was a policy pioneered by her Conservative predecessors in Walsall as far back as 1967.
In that year, the council offered its council houses (flats were excluded) for sale to sitting tenants at a discount of 20 per cent with a flat rate fee of £40 to cover expenses. One hundred applications were received with 500, it was said, in the pipeline, incentivised by the 15s (75p) a week increase being proposed for council rents. (1) The real damage to council housing stock, however, came in the later iteration of Right to Buy; by 2003 only some 23,000 homes in Walsall remained under council management.
There were other winds of change too. Estates up and down the country fell on hard times in the 1970s. At the same time, minority communities – often previously excluded from council housing by local residency rules yet frequently in greatest need – were, as needs-based allocations became the norm, being granted tenancies in greater numbers.
The two currents collided in ugly fashion on the Pleck Estate in Walsall. In March 1977, a newly-formed tenants’ association called for the vetting of new tenants as a means of countering vandalism. This became explicitly and straightforwardly racist a few months later when the chair of the association stated his belief that ‘on the whole Asians will not conform to our way of life…the way things are going in Pleck flats they are going to be turned into ghettos’. The Commission for Racial Equality found the Housing Department to have colluded in this discrimination. (2)
Other far more benign but controversial localist currents were emerging in in Walsall politics at this time. A left-wing Caldmore Residents’ Group (Tribunite in its politics for older readers) established a Caldmore Advice Centre and Caldmore Housing Association to campaign for the depressed community’s interests. They were intended to represent and promote a radically devolved vision of local government and its services, focused on the neighbourhood.
The Group’s leading activist, Dave Church, spoke critically of the gap he saw that had grown between local councillors and the wider council bureaucracy and those they worked for: (3)
In the vastness of the civic centre, many [local politicians] had had little or no contact with the people they were supposed to serve; personal contact on such rare occasions that it had been unavoidable had nearly always meant some more or less frightening confrontation with a tenant driven to despair by neglect and indifference and who had somehow managed to evade the elaborate defences provided by the civic centre.
The Group became influential in the local Labour Party and in 1980 Walsall Labour fought the local elections on a far-reaching manifesto entitled Haul to Democracy which committed it to forming neighbourhood offices to deliver housing and welfare services and mobilise a community-based politics. A Labour victory saw 35 such centres created but, ousted by an anti-socialist alliance within two years, it was a short-lived experiment.
Structurally, the issue remained dormant for the decade which followed but by 1995 Dave Church’s left-wing politics had triumphed within the Labour Group. The Party’s manifesto in that year, Power to the People, went even further than the 1980s scheme in proposing the complete devolution of Walsall’s local government by the formation of 55 locally elected neighbourhood councils.
The Conservative Party characterised the programme as ‘loony leftism’ and the new neighbourhood councils as ‘mini-Kremlins’ but, more importantly, the council found itself at odds with Tony Blair’s Labour Party. By the end of the year, the predominant left-wing faction within the Labour group was suspended from Party membership and Labour had lost control of the council.
It would be easy, and not wholly misguided, to see this defeat of a radical, grass-roots politics as a consequence of New Labour’s centralising tendencies and its crushing desire to earn itself the electoral respectability which would, two years later, lead to its 1997 landslide. But the plans, however good their intent, were dangerously flawed.
Their promised job cuts and budget savings alienated local and national trades unions; the left-wing group was isolated even from other radical Labour councils of the time; and the proposals themselves were illegal under existing local government legislation. In essence, this was a voluntarist left-wing politics which lacked the grass-roots support it claimed to embody. The ‘Democratic Labour’ group formed by expelled councillors had lost all its seats by 1999 by which time more mainstream Labour representatives had resumed control of the council. (4)
Ultimately and ironically, a very watered down version of this devolutionist politics emerged in the regeneration schemes which followed. In April 1996, after his removal from office, Church’s bid for Single Regeneration Budget funding was rewarded by a £14.6m grant from its ‘Empowering Local Communities’ programme. Elected local committees were formed in the seven areas of the Borough to benefit from the funding. (5) Other local committees were formed in the five areas which received City Challenge funding. These, of course, were consultative, not executive.
These regeneration programmes were part and parcel of a very changed housing politics. The Conservative government which came to power in 1979 didn’t like council housing. Right to Buy was only the most blatant example of this. Cuts in the Housing Investment Programme budget were another. Walsall bid for £22m support from central government in 1980-81 but was granted £13m. One new council house was started that year. In 1981-82, it bid £20m, reckoning that 1000 new homes were needed to make at least a dent in the 9000-strong waiting list. It received £7.5m. (6)
The various estate regeneration programmes, whatever their sometime positive effect and intention, were also a means of marginalising council-owned and managed homes as funding was restricted for the most part to third sector providers.
The Tenants Management Organisation (TMO) established in Chuckery 1988 was formed in response to an Estate Action bid. Three others were founded around the same time to take over management of other high-rise estates. TMOs were promoted as a means of allowing residents and tenant activists real management of their own homes. In Walsall, at least, they seem to have been successful and poplar. By the end of the decade there were eight TMOs in Walsall. The Walsall Alliance of Tenant Management Organisations (WATMOS) was formed in 2002 and currently comprises eleven subsidiaries, including – in an interesting example of contemporary third sector entrepreneuralism – two in the London Borough of Lambeth. (7)
By this time, large-Scale Voluntary Transfer was the new game in town – a process initiated under the Conservatives in 1988 which took off under New Labour after 1997 – which transferred council housing stock to housing associations. The rules which restricted new state investment in housing and regeneration to the latter made the process all but inevitable.
Walsall transferred the entirety of its housing stock in 2003 though the transfer ballot approval was underwhelming – 50 per cent of tenants agreed to transfer on a 71 per cent turnout. At any rate, the Borough’s 22,971 homes were transferred; around 21,000 to the Walsall Housing Group housing association and 1700 – the remaining tower blocks – to WATMOS.
The transfer enabled the implementation of the Labour Government’s 2000 Decent Homes Programme which has upgraded and improved many thousands of homes in Walsall and across the county. Another very New Labour programme, the New Deal for Communities, was implemented in the Blakenhall, Bloxwich East and Leamore area of Walsall in 2005.
Tower blocks, which had once heralded a bright new housing future, were often judged incapable of improvement. In the 2000s, Walsall demolished nine of its tower blocks – including three 1950s blocks at Blakenall Gardens and two 1960s blocks in Darlaston. Alma and Leys Courts, the last to be completed, were ironically among the first to be razed – in 2001. (8)
All that will confirm much conventional wisdom about the ‘failure’ of high-rise housing but a more nuanced view is justified. The 16-storey St Mary’s Court block was closed by the council and scheduled for demolition in 1997. Instead, it was sold to the private sector, refurbished (and rebranded as The Pinnacle) and it survives to provide good homes – just no longer to social housing tenants.
It’s also true that high-rise council tenants had been unhappy. In 2002, as demolitions were in full swing, a survey showed just 33 per cent of tenants in Walsall tower blocks satisfied with their landlord. WATMOS claims that a 2009 survey of the same homes showed 92 per cent satisfaction under their new management. Taken at face value, the evidence suggests anger directed more towards poor management and neglect than high-rise living as such.
That seems justified anecdotally by a 2013 press report (sparked by a government report calling for blocks to be demolished and replaced by ‘streets people actually want to live in’) in which residents of the Sandbank Estate challenged its authors to visit and enjoy its ‘1950s-style community spirit’. One long-term resident stated, ‘even if I won the lottery tonight I’d still live here. I’d just get a butler in’. (9) Such views – and a more complex story of high-rise living – are confirmed in the Block Capital’s Living in the Sky project, a history of high-rise council flats in the Black Country.
Meanwhile, the majority of Walsall’s now social housing remains the solid two-storey housing built by the Council over many decades. It’s a diminishing resource as more homes are privately purchased but it remains a vital and life-enhancing one for many thousands. The Walsall Housing Group has built some 530 new homes since 2003. In the current climate, that is an achievement though it’s one which pales into insignificance when compared to the building and slum clearance programme of its predecessors studied in previous posts.
(1) ‘”Hot cake” council house sales’, Birmingham Post, 26 September 1967
(2) CRE, Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council, Practice and policies of housing allocation (February 1985)
(3) Quoted in Mark Whitehead, ‘”Love thy neighbourhood” – Rethinking the Politics of Scale and Walsall’s Struggle for Neighbourhood Democracy’, Environment and Planning A, vol 35, 2003
(4) This account is drawn from Whitehead, ‘”Love thy neighbourhood” – Rethinking the Politics of Scale and Walsall’s Struggle for Neighbourhood Democracy’ and John Rentoul, ‘So, just how loony are they in Walsall?’, The Independent, 9 August 1995
(5) Pete Duncan, Sally Thomas, Neighbourhood Regeneration: Resourcing Community Involvement (Policy Press, 2000)
(6) David Winnick, MP, Housing (Walsall), House of Commons Debate, 30 July 1981, vol 9, cc1341-8
(8) The Block Capital Project, Living in the Sky: a History of High-Rise Council Flats in the Black Country (2015)
(9) ‘Walsall tower blocks high in satisfaction’, Express and Star, 2 March 2015