2 May 1969
This article, by Bill Hooper, appears in the current edition of Sphinx magazine and provides an insight into the growing confidence of the Abercromby Tenants Association in challenging the housing policies of the University and the Corporation in the area. Six months ago, Guild Gazette published the article which exposed the University as the owner of slum housing adjacent to the campus and the newly built Senate House.
”We have nothing to do with political parties – we are the people”
– Secretary, Abercromby Tenants Association
“After all, we are the Corporation, because we pay the rates.”
– A Liverpool housewife.
Towards the end of last summer, a handful of Liverpool housewives got together and started having meetings in the Conservative committee rooms in Bedford St. South. In October a handful of students living in the area got to hear about it and went along too. Feelings about landlords, Liverpool 8 housing, the Corpy, University authorities, bureaucracy and Government in general were pretty mutual. Experiences, ideas and frustrations were thrown about and everyone learnt a lot they didn’t know before.
In the cheerfulness of the atmosphere plans began to emerge. The committee rooms were cold and cramped and the housewives had no easy access to a duplicator. The students offered the use of one and also of the Union for meetings. 1,000 leaflets were distributed in the area bounded by Upper Parliament Street, Crown Street, Oxford Street, and Hope Street; and when, in mid-November, the McAusland Lounge filled with 30 or more people, it was clear that there was work to do. Since then things have moved apace.
At this time the University owned Melville Place, the street next to Myrtle Gardens, and a more dilapidated set of properties would be hard to find. Roofs leaked, walls cracked and floors sloped. For thirteen years, it seems, no repairs had been made. The Estates Officer was invited to the next meeting to explain why; meanwhile the tenants withheld their rent, encouraged by the existence of the Association.
Within ten days workmen appeared in the street in unprecedented numbers; letters flew back and forth in high places and finally the Corporation took over the street and guaranteed to rehouse everyone within 12 months. There are now only 5 families still living there. This is what a rent strike can do. And incidentally it also transpired later that the Gazette feature on Melville Place had penetrated to the innermost sub-committees of the Corpy.
People from every part of the area came with their troubles. The three Councillors for the ward were invited to come and listen. They came, and went away each time with enormous caseloads, especially the Tory Councillor, who doesn’t hold a surgery; this was the only way people could get to see him personally. But this proved a rather cumbersome way of getting problems dealt with, so gradually a system has been brought into action whereby 15 street representatives armed with information sheets and complaint forms channel problems through to the secretaries, who initiate the appropriate action.
Moreover, as the complex legal aspects of people’ s housing situations were becoming rapidly apparent, it was felt that the Association needed the Services of a lawyer. In January, a local solicitor was found, through the National Council for Civil Liberties, who was prepared to give free legal advice and aid to everyone in the area both at the meetings, which had now become a regular fortnightly event, and in working hours. Subsequently, faced with a battery of letters both from the Association, on its own headed notepaper, and from the solicitor, often hinting at legal action, the competent authorities, municipal and otherwise, have begun to take action on a large number of cases where they would otherwise have stood still. Though a lot remains to be done, roofs have been repaired, rats and rubbish cleared, people rehoused and two or three evictions forestalled.
At the meeting on March 20th, it transpired towards ten 0’clock that a tenant living in Chatham Street with her 4 children had been threatened with eviction that very night by her landlord, who had already committed acts of harassment. The meeting adjourned to her ‘flat’ – one room without a lavatory and with a squalid unusable kitchen into which the lavatory upstairs leaked – for which she was paying £3.10s. a week.
Students also arrived in the street, one of whom volunteered to sleep there the night – and the following four as well as it turned out – to raise the alarm should any further eviction attempts occur. A crowd of about 50 stayed outside the house till about midnight, and the landlord didn’t show up. The ATA. followed up the case by persistently chasing up all the relevant departments of the Corporation to take action, at the same time giving it plenty of publicity through the press (ie the Liverpool Weekly News) and the BBC. The tenant and her children were finally rehoused some four weeks after the event.
The impact of such willing student involvement on this occasion was such that people have since been ringing up the Union for help with problems. The basic cause of a lot of people’s anxiety is knowing they live in a clearance area, but not knowing exactly when they are scheduled to be cleared or likely to get rehoused; this increases the feeling of powerlessness. The Planning Department’s official responsible for the area was therefore invited to one of the meetings to explain the proposals for the redevelopment of the area, and with the aid of maps untangled some of the complexities of compulsory purchase orders, rehabilitation schemes, closing orders and so on. This has been followed up by the Association bombarding the Town Clerk’s Department with ”search” orders for every street; now everyone has a much clearer idea of who is responsible for their property and how much longer their homes will be left standing, and what their chances of rehousing should be. Thus the mystique of administration has been Iifted somewhat, and cracks have become apparent.
Towards the end of March, tenants were receiving notice that the Corporation intended to raise the rents of most of the slum property in the area by between 6/- and 11/- per week. Leaflets were promptly circulated to discuss what action should be taken. Initially, further investigations produced answers like ”it was a clerical error” from the Housing Department, but it later became clear that the rises were for real, the object of the exercise being to bring City Estates rents ”into line” with Housing Department rents. But the fight was on, and joined by the Nile Street and Cathedral Precinct Association, tenants began withholding their increases from April 14th, and latest estimates suggest that at least 100 are still doing so ”until such times as sufficient and satisfactory repairs are made” to their property. Again, workmen have started appearing on the scene and repairs are now being done. In fact the Nile Street tenants have begun to win rent concessions.
The activities of the Association have always been political and social at the same time, and the ”social work” function of bringing out the needs of people in the area and enabling new contacts to be made should not be overlooked. It is now able to go further than this; there are now plans to set up a playgroup for the under-5s, and to run outings to Wales for the over-5s: kids in this area rarely see the country at all.
£12 has been raised in the last month from raffles, and rummage sales are also planned to cover general expenses. In an area with every kind of social problem stemming largely from the basic problem of bad housing and overcrowding, a tenants association provides an ideal base for this kind of community effort. Although the solution to the housing problem is ultimately an economic one, there are plenty of administrative gaps which can be closed by this kind of pressure; the squatters have already shown the most obvious of these.
This is genuine grassroots democracy in action. Or community development, or call it what you like. The point is that the people of Abercromby now have a public voice, and a means by which they can get more say in what goes on in their own neighbourhood, and by which they can more effectively extort from the unfeeling bureaucracy of the Corporation, and of the Housing Department in particular, the fair treatment they deserve. And through its own streets reps and committee, individual and common problems can be quickly dealt with. It is essentially a dynamic and often unpredictable process, as anyone who has been to the meetings will agree.
There is a lot more that could be told, and a lot more will have happened by the time this is published. Tenants associations are getting organised now all over the country, overshadowed perhaps in the public eye by the parallel student and shop steward movements. But with the present vacuum in institutional politics there are hopeful signs that they could soon become a new form of decentralised, ground floor, do-it-yourself local government, because this is something that anyone can do, and which everyone can understand and take part in at their own level and in their own way, and there are no strings attached.