Anarchy 83/Tenants take over

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Tenants take over

a new strategy for
council tenants


Ours is a society in which, in every field, one group of people makes decisions, exercises control, limits choices, while the great majority have to accept these decisions, submit to this control and act within the limits of these externally imposed choices. It happens in work and leisure, politics, and education, and nowhere is it more evident than in the field of housing. This article is concerned with one particular aspect of the housing situation. It presents the arguments for a tenant take-over, for the transfer of control of municipal housing from the local authorities to tenants’ associations. Although more than a quarter of the population of this country live in municipally owned houses and flats, there is not a single estate controlled by its tenants, apart from a handful of co-operative housing societies. At the moment an argument is going on between the two major political parties over the issue of the sale of council houses to tenants. From the point of view of increasing people’s control of their own environment this is a sham battle, because it affects only a tiny minority of tenants. At the moment too, in consequence of the changes in the structure of local government in London, the Greater London Council is planning a phased transfer of a large proportion of its housing stock to the London Boroughs. It plans to transfer about 70,000 houses and flats in 1969. Discussion of the control of housing is in the air, and no time is more propitious than the present for raising the genuinely radical demand for tenant control and tenant responsibility.
  The facts and opinions presented here are intended as ammunition
for such a demand.


  The ways in which householders hold their houses in Britain are limited. They are in fact more limited than in any other European country except Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Roumania.[1] The three modes of tenure in this country are owner-occupation, council tenancy and tenancy from a private landlord. The sole exception to this is, of course, ownership by a housing association, and this includes the only examples we have of co-operative housing. Statistically it is insignificant. The proportions between these three tenure groups have changed, and are changing, rapidly. For Great Britain as a whole the percentages in 1947 were[2]
public authority rented
privately rented

By 1965 they had become[3]


The figures differ according to whether a dwelling or a household is being counted and according to the definitions used, and they are also different for various parts of Britain. For example, the figures for England only in 1964, counting households, were[4]


while another estimate, in terms of dwellings,[5] gives


The proportions of council-owned dwellings varies greatly. “The Newcastle Corporation controls two out of every five of the city’s houses. In Greenock, on the West Coast of Scotland, half the popula­tion live in council houses.”[5] The London Borough of Kensington has 5% council tenants, while Dagenham has 67%.[6]

  The general trend is clear, and, since it concerns a commodity so basic, durable and socially important as housing, it is one of the dramatic social changes of this century. Private renting, which before the First World War accounted for over 90% of households, is declining rapidly for reasons which are well known. Just as rapidly owner-occupation and renting from local authorities is increasing. The pro­portionate increase of these two tenure groups depends of course, on government policy, as well as on opportunity and increasing affluence. The post-war Labour government, through building licensing and a quota system, put the emphasis on building by local authorities. The
Conservative governments of the 1950s and early 1960s changed the emphasis: “Under the Labour government only one new house in six was built for sale to a private buyer; under the Tory government two out of every three were built for sale.”[5] The policy of the present government is that by 1970 the proportions of council houses built for rent and private houses built for sale should be equal. It is pledged to stimulate and facilitate both forms of tenure. Virtually no new house building by private enterprise since the war has been for private letting. This is why privately rented property is usually synonymous with old, run-down property. The bulk of Britain’s slum housing is in the privately rented sector.   Thus “the range of choice open to the family in Britain seeking a modern house is more limited than is the case almost anywhere else in Europe”.[1]


  The alternative to owner-occupation or council tenancy is to be found in the housing society movement, which has been called “Housing’s Third Arm”. If it is a third arm, it has so far been a regrettably feeble one, for housing associations of all kinds had by 1962 provided only 1.3% of post-war housing. Between them they control 0.7% of the total housing stock. But since the only examples of tenant co-operative housing fall into this category, it is worth examining more closely.

  When building societies first came into existence as organs of working-class mutual aid at the end of the 18th century, they were remarkably like the self-build housing societies of today, and very unlike the money-lending-plus-savings-bank organisations which are the modern building societies. They consisted of groups of people who saved to buy land to house themselves, and, when the first house was completed, borrowed money on its security to build another, until all the members of the society were housed, at which point the society disbanded. In a sense they resembled the method of financing house purchase used by some groups of immigrants in this country today:

  Particularly among Indians and Pakistanis, housing finance pools are found with a substantial membership—perhaps as many as 900—which meet periodically once a fortnight or once a month, and make calls of, say £10 on each member. Those who draw upon the fund thus created are subject thereafter to periodic calls until the whole amount drawn by them has been liquidated. Drawings under this system are substantial and may cover the whole purchase cost. Occasionally, West Indians operate on similar but less ambitious lines. . . . Their pooling arrangements usually only provide for the initial deposits necessary for house purchase, thus enabling them to “get off the ground”.[6]

  The building societies changed their character in the nineteenth century to become more permanent societies, separating the people who
wished to save from those who wished to build. A new kind of society was founded in 1830, the Labourers’ Friendly Society, which also changed its character and its name, to become the Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes. The early efforts of poor people to improve their own housing conditions failed to expand for lack of capital. Investors then, as now, found easier ways to get rich than by financing working-class housing. This is where the Victorian philanthropists moved in, satisfied with a “modest return” on their capital.

  The housing society movement since then has never lost this “charitable” emphasis, and in this respect is in marked contrast to the co-operative housing associations of several other countries. Mr. Lewis Waddilove contrasts the situation here with that in Sweden, where the movement

depended strongly on the initiative of tenants; it did not, as in the United Kingdom, become the instrument of liberal employers and philanthropists making provision for what were referred to as the “working classes”. The tenants’ unions of Sweden discovered that the best way of preventing the making of undue profits from a housing shortage and to raise housing standards was to build and administer their own homes. As an example, in 1923, the tenants’ union of Stock­holm became The Tenants’ Savings and Building Society and in the following year similar movements in other towns came together to form a National Association of Housing Societies known throughout Sweden by the initials HSB. . . . A second national body for housing associations has been formed by the trade unions in Sweden concerned with the building industry. HSB remains the largest national body and its very name measures out the difference between the Swedish and the British housing association movement. In Sweden the movement’s inspiration and drive come from the tenants; they save for the purpose of raising their own housing standards.

  In Britain the initiative in the movement has come from philanthropists and others concerned to raise the housing standards of the “working class”. Save in the “self-build” societies, little initiative rests with the occupants of the houses who are simply the tenants of the association.[1]

  He describes how the HSB has built up not only resources of expert advice in building, planning and finance, “but has become a centre of research, the results of which can immediately be applied in its own large-scale activities. This means that the tiniest housing co-operative in a remote township” has access to the best of advice, architectural and technical, with the result that “the standard of design, workman­ship and finish are well in advance of comparable dwellings in this country. . . . So competent is the research, technical and even manu­facturing organisation of HSB that municipalities have been glad to avail themselves of it. Many local authorities’ housing schemes are in fact planned and executed by HSB; in some areas municipal houses are built and managed by a ‘municipal company’ on the directorate of which the local authority and HSB are represented”.[1]

  In Britain, at least until the initiation in 1966 of the Co-ownership Development Society, the nearest thing we have had to HSB has been
the National Federation of Housing Societies, which gets a meagre government grant, and to which are affiliated 1,530 societies providing general family housing, old people’s housing, industrial housing (spon­sored by industrial firms for their employees) as well as self-build, “cost-rent” and tenant co-operative schemes. Housing societies were long ago granted the same treatment as local authorities so far as facilities for long-term loans and qualification for subsidies are concerned.

  All the political parties express their support for the housing society idea, and it was amid general approval that the Housing Act of 1961 (in Section 7) made available £25 million for direct government loans at the then current rate of interest, to be administered through the National Federation to housing societies building new dwellings to be kept available for cost-rent letting, without subsidy. The Minister described his £25 million as a “pump-priming” operation, meaning that he wanted to encourage private capital to go the same way. This of course was the same pious hope that was expressed by the philan­thropists a hundred years ago, and it met with the same lack of success.

  Then in 1964, the government set up the Hous­ing Cor­por­a­tion with Admiral Sir Caspar John at its head, and offices in Park Lane, with power to dispense another £100 million in loans to housing societies for both cost-rent and co-ownership schemes.

  The results of both these attempts to stimulate the growth of housing societies has been disappointing.

  The Corporation’s last report showed that by the end of September 1966, 150 cost-rent projects, involving 6,932 dwellings and costing about £26.7 millions, had been approved together with a further 42 co-ownership schemes, covering more than 1,000 dwellings and costing £4.7 millions. A total of 371 housing societies, 288 of them cost-rent schemes, had been registered with the corporation.[7] Commenting on the implications of the report, which declared that a large potential market exists for co-ownership housing, Sir Caspar John admitted that co-ownership housing had developed slowly, adding hopefully that “things have speeded up tremendously in the past six months”.[8]

  I have referred to the rate of expansion of the housing society movement as disappointing, but perhaps the surprising thing is that it expanded at all, as so many legal and fiscal obstacles stood in its way. In the first place the original cost-rent scheme could only benefit people with an income (five years ago) above about £1,500 a year, while such people, because of the system of taxation and tax allowances would have found freehold house purchase a better proposition. Secondly, and partly because of the difficulty of finding a legal framework—even after 100 years of the Co-operative Movement—for the concept of co-ownership, the whole system was so complex that only groups con­taining someone with specialist knowledge were likely even to under
­stand the scheme. The Milner Hol­land Report[6] criticised the absurdity of the situation: “It seems to us that if non-profit housing associations are to make an effective contribution to the most urgent needs—and it is widely accepted that they should—then a rationalisation of the fiscal and legal provisions governing their activity is urgently needed; at present these seem to have the effect of discouraging the very associa­tions which are equipped to give effective help in the area where it is most needed.” And elsewhere the Report declared that “We have been unable to find any justification for the unfavourable tax treatment of housing associations and we conclude that unless the tax burden is lifted, the contribution to the supply of rented accommodation by housing associations will be seriously hampered.”   Several steps have been taken recently which, in theory, should improve the situation—the Housing Subsidies Bill, the option mortgage scheme, the prospect of assistance from the Land Commission and of more flexible cash borrowing arrangements, but none of these in prac­tice has so far affected the prospect for housing societies.


  The Labour Party issued in 1956 a policy statement on Housing which provided, amongst other proposals, for the municipalisation of urban rented property,[9] a policy which was quietly dropped in the 1960s (although of course, both Labour and Conservative local authori­ties have exercised their powers to acquire rented properties by com­pulsory purchase from unsatisfactory private landlords, and recent Labour Party policy policy statements have demanded that local authorities should use these powers more freely). The Labour Party statement was followed in 1959 by that of the Co-operative Party (debated and approved by the Brid­ling­ton Conference that year) which dissented from it in important respects. Labour had dismissed the idea of placing the management and development of municipalised dwellings in the hands of local housing associations, declaring that it was “sure that the local authorities can undertake this great new responsibility”. But the Co-operative statement pointed out that, “if the local authority is to be the only landlord within a given area, there is an obvious possibility of the general application of general rules that do not permit sufficient variation to meet individual requirements”. The statement expressed the hope that “local authorities will be more ready than in the past to devolute some of their management functions”, and recom­mended the formation of a national co-operative development housing organisation to promote co-operative housing, recognising that “the Co-operative re­tail so­ci­eties themselves cannot give the initial financial impetus to this new development in co-operation”.[10]
  The 1961 Co-operative Party policy statement reiterated the point that “very little change of policy would be necessary to give practical encouragement to the formation of co-operative housing societies”[11] and
went on to describe these changes. Later in the same year Harold Camp­bell’s pamphlet Housing Co-ops and Local Authorities was published.[12] Here he outlined the powers which local authorities possessed under the Housing Act, 1957, to promote and assist housing associations, described the co-operative schemes which already existed, and the achievements of co-operative housing movements in Sweden, Denmark and the United States, and set out the needs in this country: a powerful promotional organisation, persuasion of local authorities, mobilisation of financial resources, and changes in the legal structure. In 1966 the Co-ownership Development Society was set up and has already fostered five co-opera­tive housing societies, with Mr. Campbell as its chairman. In April 1967 he was appointed to the board of the Housing Corporation. Advocates of co-operative housing who have waited so long for the movement to get off the ground will hope that this appointment will bear fruit. What is missing is the demand from below.


  But however long it takes to develop a co-operative housing movement in this country, must we necessarily assume that the existing municipal housing estates, the homes of well over a quarter of the population, must continue to be administered paternalistically from above as though the vast social changes of the post-war world had not taken place? The Parker Morris Com­mit­tee, drawing up new standards for housing, did not think so, reminding us that “It must be admitted that many other European countries reach a far higher standard in their estate layout than we do, very largely through the use of housing asso­ciations, which take full responsibility for both the initial landscaping and its maintenance”.[13] And the Central Housing Advisory Committee reminded local authorities that “tenants today are much more repre­sentative of the community as a whole and are, for the most part, independent, reliable citizens who no longer require the support and guidance which was often thought to be necessary in the past. Local authorities must recognise that this is a major social change which is likely to become more marked in the years ahead.[14] (The Committee’s italics.)

  The Committee’s report went on: “To think of the tenants of today as though their circumstances and needs are the same as those of tenants of a generation ago would be unreal. Similarly, to expect methods of management designed to meet the needs of tenants in the 1930s to be suitable for those of the 1950s or 1970s would, we think, be quite wrong.  . . .” But what of the tenants of the 1960s? Has there been a change in the attitudes of housing management? It would be difficult to find evidence for this.

  The time is ripe for change. But change of what kind? I believe
that it should be a radical change to tenant control, and several of our foremost authorities on housing share this opinion. Mr. Waddilove,[1] for example, makes the same unfavourable comparison as did the Parker Morris Committee, between the appearance of housing estates in this country and on the Continent, and draws the same conclusion:

  The visitor to housing estates on the Continent comments most often on the attractiveness of their layout, the care with which common land is cultivated, and the harmony of external decoration. The claim of the co-operative association is that it combines the sense of ownership and the security of tenure of the owner-occupied house with an equally strong sense of responsibility for, and interest in, the neighbourhood as a whole. Moreover it does this as a by-product of its normal organisation; in Britain in new estates we have attempted to achieve the same result by all kinds of artificial stimuli to neighbourhood responsibility.

The sense of responsibility comes from being responsible, and people can only be responsible for their own lives and their own environment if they are in control of it. Similarly Professor Donnison declares:[15]

  . . . we need a system that will provide adequate housing of various types with complete security of tenure. Down payments should be negligible but subsequent payments may well be higher than council rents. The occupier should be given responsibility and incentives for maintaining and improving his own house, but should be insured against the costs of major repairs. Some body responsible to the occupiers themselves should retain a continuing interest in the character and development of the immediate neighbourhood and might provide open space and other shared amenities for its residents. In fact a way must be found to continue the advantages of owner-occupation and tenancy, both in new housing and in existing property.

  The points which require emphasis in his conclusions are that the overall body should be responsible to the occupiers themselves and that it is not enough to develop this new kind of tenure for future applica­tion: it must be applied to existing property.

  Mr. J. B. Cullingworth raises similar questions, in fact a whole series of them:[16]

  Could not tenants be given a greater degree of responsibility for the upkeep of their houses and, probably more important, for the general appearance and amenities of housing estates? There is a growing discussion of the value of “citizen-participation” in urban renewal in the rehabilitation of “twilight areas”. Is not a similar line possible with council housing estates? Surely it is not only owner-occupiers who are hit by the “do-it-yourself revolution” and who have a real concern for their houses and the environment in which they live. More fundamentally, why do we need council housing? If it is a question of ensuring that low-income families can obtain good housing at a price which they can afford, could not this be achieved by a system of family housing allowances? If it is a question of ensuring that sufficient houses are actually built, could not local authorities simply confine their attention to housebuilding and hand over the completed houses to associations of tenants, housing co-operatives, housing societies, or even (with the aid of generous mortgage facilities) to individual families? A “reserve” of houses could be kept for special needs, but it need not be on the vast scale of today.

  With his reference to housing allowances as an alternative to manipulating the rents of low-income families, and to the sale of council houses to individual tenants, Mr. Cullingworth is raising issues which I have to discuss elsewhere, but he is clearly among those who see a better future in self-management than in municipal management.


  Psychological generalisations about whole groups of people are bound to be meaningless, especially when the group to which a person belongs has been selected by such a variety of factors, most of them quite outside those of individual personality, as the choice of house tenure. In fact, of course, for most people it is not a matter of choice but of grabbing whatever opportunity has been theirs, of getting a roof over their heads.

  Yet the generalisations are made. “Property owners,” says Ferdynand Zweig,[17] “often struck me as a brighter, more daring and enterprising breed than the rest. . . . I often asked how people felt when they became house-owners. . . . The overwhelming majority felt deeply about it,” and the words which came to their lips were satis­faction, self-confidence, freedom, independence. And James Tucker, describing the effects of segregation by house tenure and the frightening animosities which exist between owner-occupiers and council tenants,[18] feels able to isolate certain characteristics of council tenants:

  Now, what of the people? There are two dominant characteristics, one at least of which I cannot claim to be the first to have noticed. It is unneighbourliness, often resulting in loneliness; the other seems to be based on an acceptance of the notion that people in council houses have failed, haven’t quite made it, and is frequently expressed as a frustrated desire to buy a house off the estate.

  Many council tenants speak with gentle pride of how little they have to do with people living near them. . . . In some measure it may be a means of self-protection against neighbours not considered up to the social mark. But, more important, it is a defensive assertion against the low social standing of estates: “Look! We can be as unfriendly as anybody.” People ape what they assume to be superior ways of behaving; suburban ways, for instance. It is tragic that it should be so and leads to great unhappiness. . . .

  In so far as we may consider the generalisations to be valid, we can see that they arise from the social situations in which people find them­selves. The walls or fences which in a number of notorious instances have been built to separate privately-owned from council-owned sections of the same estate are an extreme manifestation of ordinary English snobbery, but they make it devastatingly clear to the more vulnerable kind of municipal tenant that in the eyes of millions of his fellow-countrymen he is a second-class citizen. The way in which his relation­ship with his landlord intensifies this feeling has been made clear by Stanley Alderson:[19]

  . . . the usual balance of power between landlord and tenant is everywhere upset by the condition of housing shortage. But the problems

are much more acute in council tenancy. It is not only that the council tenant is even less free to move than the private tenant. The private tenant can at least hate his landlord for taking advantage of the conditions of shortage for his own financial gain. The council tenant knows that he is fortunate in having his house, and feels that he has been done a favour. The local authority which is his landlord never does anything for its own financial gain. It always acts in its wisdom for its tenants’ own advantage. In the long run, power employed paternalistically provokes far greater resent­ment than power employed selfishly or even antagonistically. Because there is no satisfactory outlet for it, the resentment accumulates. . . .

Worse still, every attempt to rationalise rent policy serves to exacerbate this paternalistic relationship, for Mr. Alderson goes on:

  It is often said of in­dus­trial strikes over wages that their real cause is repressed resentment deriving from day-to-day industrial relationships. Similarly the rent strikes that followed the introduction of differential rent schemes must have given release to repressed resentment deriving from landlord-tenant relations. The protests against a means test were not merely rationalisations of a reluctance to pay higher rents. Differential rents were resented because they foisted on the local authorities the ultimate paternalist responsibility of deciding how much pocket money their tenants should be allowed to keep. Local authorities deserve sympathy for their reluctance to exercise this responsibility. It is an imperative that they should be relieved of it as that council tenants who can afford to should pay economic rents. The council tenant who needs financial assistance should receive it through some other organ of the state, established to assist private tenants and owner-occupiers as well. He could then claim his assistance without loss of dignity, and he would always pay his full rent to his landlord. Equally his landlord would always be entitled to claim it from him.

We need to find a system of tenure which changes this psychology of dependency for one of independence. One which, as Harold Campbell puts it, “combines private enterprise and mutual aid in a unique form of social ownership which puts a premium on personal responsibility and individual initiative”.[10]


  The obvious nucleus of a tenants’ co-operative is the tenants’ association. Is there evidence that associations of this kind can bear the weight of continuous organisational responsibility? Several students of this kind of association would doubt it, citing Ruth Durant’s famous study of “Watling” and other more recent examples where, on the new estate, “there is a familiar pattern of initial loneliness followed by unity against the outside world, giving rise to an agitational Resid­ents’ As­so­ci­a­tion. This achieves its task and most of the inhabitants settle down to a home-centred but small group-oriented, social life”.[20] Others have developed a “phase theory” of the life of tenants’ associations:

  In the first phase, the association played mainly a representative role, negotiating with the local authority for essential services and organising large-scale socials and protest meetings. In the second it became mainly a constructive organisation, fully occupied in building a community centre. In the third phase the centre’s finances were placed on a firm foundation; and in the fourth, popular wishes were discovered through a process of trial and error. In the fifth period, short-run equilibrium was reached: the activities of the centre followed a routine pattern. This was the path of evolution of the most successful centre studied; the others failed to make such rapid adjustments, and lost most of their membership.[21]

  John Hayes, on the other hand, emphasises that it cannot be said that tenants’ associations are merely “transitory bodies formed for one objective only and then fading away”. On the contrary, “Once estab­lished they tend to last, and to concentrate on welfare work for their neighbourhood. Of fifty-eight groups affiliated to the London Standing Conference of Housing Estate Community Groups in 1962, one had been in existence for forty-six years, twenty have existed for fourteen years, eighteen for from five to ten years, sixteen for from one to five years, and three were new in 1962. Evidence of this sort should help to disprove the contention that the groups lack stability”.[22] Similarly, Gerry Williams, youth adviser to the London group of associations, writing of “the quite spontaneous development, after the Second World War, on the growing number of council housing estates, of Tenants’ Associations”, emphasises that, “Contrary to the general opinion, the great number of these autonomous, self-formed organisations are not ‘grievance’ bodies, but non-political associations formed for the purpose of creating some sense of community and neighbourliness amongst the uprooted in the often drab new areas of houses and flats that are such a characteristic part of post-war Britain”.[23]

  Testifying to the value of such associations, the Central Housing Advisory Committee reported that, “The attitude of local authorities towards tenants’ associations tends to vary according to the circum­stances in which an association has sprung up. Naturally the main purpose of most associations is to watch over the interests of the tenant. Their approach may differ widely, some starting with the belief that the interests of the tenant and landlord are inevitably opposed. We believe, however, that whatever the starting point, the wise course for the local authority is to treat associations as responsible bodies and seek to secure their confidence and co-operation . . .”[14] (the Committee’s italics).

  Describing the activities of the associations, Mr. Hayes notes that, “Their objects are usually threefold; to encourage good neighbourliness; and to provide facilities for recreational activities; and to work for the benefit of the residents generally. Usually their method is to organise social activities first, and later to serve as a consultative committee for the estate, acting as a link with housing management for the discussion of common problems of living on the estate. The advantage of having such a representative group to consult as a ‘consumer council’ has only slowly been recognised by housing managers.”[22]

  Since, I am in fact, advocating that tenants’ associations should evolve from this consultative status to that of actual control, I should perhaps cite a contradictory opinion. Messrs. Morris and Mogey, in The Sociology of Housing observe that,

  Councils are apt to be cautious in granting self-government to their tenants, and this is to some extent justified by the tenants’ diversity and inexperience. Others feel that paternal watchfulness and control by the local authority can easily outgrow the bounds of reason; and give only the minimum of tenancy conditions and unsought advice. This represents the other extreme from paternalism: it assumes such a strong relationship that tenants will feel free to make any requests to the local authority. It

gives tenants’ associations much more responsibility than they are structured to carry. They lack the power to discipline their own members, and cannot therefore bargain successfully or act firmly on their members’ behalf. To find a balance between paternalism and laissez-faire requires skill; for tenants’ associations will tend to be effectively suppressed if either extreme policy is adopted.[24]

  But has anyone ever tried giving real responsibilities to tenants’ associations? Apart from the handful of examples of co-operative co-partnership housing associations, there is very little evidence to draw upon. There is certainly a lesson to learn from one particular field of private enterprise housing. The general standard of design in specu­lative house-building is abysmally low, but the outstanding exceptions in post-war private development have been in the work of Span De­velop­ments Ltd. and Wates Ltd. Wates arrange for the shared facilities of their estates to be the responsibility of a management com­pany composed of the residents themselves, which, they claim, “also allows people to get to know and help each other (in matters like baby­sitting for example) without intruding into each other’s essential pri­vacy”. And in the Span developments there has been developed a method of residents’ control, described by the architect Eric Lyons as a “special technique of leasehold purchase, which is effecting a quiet revolution in property ownership” and he claims for the system that

  . . . It has solved the old problem of maintenance of common spaces and structures, and also involves each resident in the autonomous Residents’ Society which runs each estate. . . . The scheme which has a Residents’ Society very carefully formed on a non-profit-making basis under the Friendly Societies Acts . . . is a method of guaranteeing the permanent maintenance of the building, and not only the building fabric, but the gardens and general amenities. It is also of singular benefit in involving each individual in the idea, each person who lives there. That seems to be socially a tremendous thing.

  . . . As far as I am concerned, it does not affect me whether it is leasehold or not. The important thing is that the Residents’ Societies are in charge legally and formally. They have their own committees and take an active part. If someone’s child starts digging up the lawn, someone will want to know why. Everyone has a stake in the issue. . . .[25]

  His last sentence explains why it is reasonable to expect that genuine control by tenants’ co-operatives would be successful. To suggest that the middle-class residents of Span estates have some quality which is lacking in council house tenants, apart from larger incomes, is to deny the whole edifice of mutual aid organisation which the working class has built up in the past. (In fact, a resident of one Span develop­ment at Blackheath remarked that “We have all the advantages without the disadvantages of a working class district. The estate has achieved a high degree of neighbourliness.”[26])

  And if it is really true that tenant control would give tenants’ associations more responsibility than they are “structured to carry”, or that the tenants’ diversity and inexperience would make it impossible, how are we to explain the success of the extreme case which Mr. Waddilove reports from Norway?

  A pre-war municipal estate near Oslo was transferred over a period from the ownership of the local authority to the ownership of associations

of the tenants themselves. It has been one of the most difficult problems to the local authority; its standards were low, its appearance unpleasant, and there was great resistance to increases in rents to a reasonable level. A series of meetings patiently arranged by the housing manager ultimately resulted in the acceptance by the tenants of membership in co-operatives which, on favourable terms, took over the ownership of the property from the local authority. Today it is transformed. The members have cared for their own property and by corporate action have ensured that others have done so in a way that they failed to do when it was in public ownership; proposed by the municipality at which they protested so vigorously. This experience so impressed the authority that it decided in principle to transfer all its post-war estates similarly to the ownership of tenant co-operatives and to base its housing policy on this principle.[1]


  Local authorities have been at liberty to sell their houses for at least ten years, but it is only very recently that this has become a “hot” political issue: since Birming­ham Corporation began selling council houses in large numbers last year. The issue is obviously going to be bandied about in future local and national elections, just as it was in the municipal elections in 1967 when London and other big cities changed their political masters.

  What proportion of council tenants would like to buy the houses they occupy, and are financially able to do so? It is hard to make an estimate. Several years ago Ferdynand Zweig observed that “The tendency to consider house property as something worth having and struggling for, something which gives one strength and self-confidence and social standing, appears to be spreading among the working classes. I have no figures to offer here but I think that the working classes may be divided into three main groups, numerically not very far apart. One group tries to acquire property; the second does not think about house property at all, as it is beyond its possibilities and its ken; the third group rejects the acquisition of house property outright as undesirable and even pernicious for the working man”.[17] On the other hand, James Tucker noted in 1966 that

  It is unusual, though that is all, to come across council tenants who would not prefer to be owner-occupiers, possibly of council-built property, but more often of a house away from municipal estates. It would be wild to suggest that all those who want to go are seeking an escape from council housing because its social rating is low. More simply, property appreciates and many council tenants feel they are missing something: their objections are not to renting council property but to renting. Yet it is worth noticing that a lot of council tenants regard those who have moved off to their own houses as having taken a leap upward in social standing. The other side of that thought can only be shame or frustration or aggressiveness at finding themselves left behind.[18]

  Commenting on the actual response of tenants in Birmingham and Reading to offers from the council of the chance to buy their houses, Brian Lapping (The Guardian, 15.5.67) says, “What is surprising is how few people in council houses have taken the chance to buy them. Reading’s 1,500 have taken five years. In Birmingham so far only 2½% of those offered the chance have bought. Nobody knows why the response rate has been low. Perhaps it is because of the freeze, perhaps because most council tenants don’t like their homes enough to want to
own them.” And Clive Branson (Daily Mail, 11.10.67) remarks, “My poll among tenants who are thinking of buying their council homes showed that many had only the haziest idea what the step meant. They had not thought of buying a house until approached by the council.” Harry Brack (Evening Standard, 23.5.67) asks, “What lies behind this poor response?” and he answers, “Many tenants simply cannot afford to go in for owner occupation. For others, a home on a private estate is a status symbol, and an ageing council house is not.” Among tenants explaining their reasons for opting to buy their council houses, many replied in similar words to those of Mr. Ronald Atkins, “It seemed that the rents were going up regularly every 12 months or two years. One year they went up twelve bob. More or less, we wanted to buy the house on account of that. We didn’t think the rent was all that exces­sive because it’s a very good house, but from what we could see, the rent would eventually beat what we pay for buying it. It’s not only that, but you feel more inclined to do things to make the house better for yourself and you feel more secure.”

  As with most issues connected with housing, opinions on the sale of council housing have polarised on political lines. This applies even to opinions on the success or failure of the campaign to sell them. Thus at the Scarborough Conference of the Labour Party, Mr. Greenwood, Minister of Housing, defending his policy of disagreeing but not inter­vening, declared that “The rate of sale is falling: it is lower today than a year ago” (Guardian, 3.10.67), while on the other hand Mr. Horace Cutler, the new Conservative chairman of the Greater London Council’s Housing Committee, claims that “There has been a fantastic response to the GLC’s ‘buy your own home’ scheme for council tenants”. Both in Birmingham and London, the Councils do not propose to offer to tenants more than 10% of their houses. The rate of response in London is certainly higher than in Birmingham, probably about 10% of tenants to whom the offer has been made have started negotiating. If we assume that the same figure would apply to the 90% of tenants who have not been offered the chance, this would mean that about one in a hundred of council tenants feels able or anxious to buy his house. When you look at it in this light, it is hard to see what the fuss is about.

  The arguments which have been used by the Labour Party in opposition to the sale of council houses have hardly been of a kind to convince the uncommitted. It is suggested that the sale of houses to tenants would have the effect of depriving people waiting on the councils’ lists, but in fact these houses would be occupied as tenants by the would-be purchasers in any case. (The actual number of occupied council dwellings which fall vacant in London is only 1½ to 2% a year.) It is extraordinary that in the public discussion of this issue, no one has made the point that transfer of ownership collectively to a tenants’ association is infinitely preferable to the selling of a small number of odd houses whose tenants happen to be ready and willing to buy them, one by one. This could be an alternative more attractive both to the tenant and to the council.

  It would extend the benefits of independence much more widely.
It would avoid setting up yet another social barrier on estates, between those who have bought and those who still pay rent. It would enable public spaces to be collectively maintained. It would create, in Mr. Campbell’s words, “a sense of belonging and of shared responsibility (rarely to be found on a municipal housing estate or among suburban owner-occupiers) which makes for mutual respect, out of which a healthy society naturally grows”.   There is no point in denying (like many house-owning Labour poli­ticians have) that it is better to be an owner-occupier than a council tenant. What wants emphasising is that it is better than either to be a member of a community.


  Housing management, as undertaken by local authorities under the Housing Acts, includes all the work involved in:
  1. advice on the design and layout of estates from the management point of view;
  2. the study of housing needs in the borough or district;
  3. the selection of tenants;
  4. the allocation of accommodation;
  5. the fixing of rents and the levying of occupation charges;
  6. the collection of, and accounting for, rents, rates and other charges due from tenants;
  7. the upkeep, maintenance and repair of houses and estates, the adaptation, improvement and conversion of properties;
  8. the provision of caretaking services and the operation of special estate services (laundries, lifts, community centres, clubrooms, etc.);
  9. the enforcement of tenancy conditions, the maintenance of good order, the care of elderly, infirm, and unsatisfactory tenants.

  If an estate were taken over by a tenant co-operative, the first two of these functions would not be its concern. (Though, of course, if the normal means of providing housing became by way of housing societies rather than by way of local authorities, they would become everybody’s concern.) We have therefore to consider how a co-operative might manage items 3 to 9.

Selection of Tenants:  Local authorities vary enormously in their selec­tion criteria. (See for example Jane Morton: “The Council House Raffle”, New Society, 23.11.67.) The one basic principle is that allocation and selection is based on need rather than merit. But the “weighting” of various kinds of need is bound to be arbitrary, and there is no reason to suppose that a committee of tenants, selecting a candidate to fill a vacancy, would have any less valid a conception of fairness than the housing department’s officials. However, some other criteria usually ignored in council selection may, quite legitimately be adopted. Morris and Mogey[24] note that with the usual selection methods “legitimate public or group interests may be largely ignored” and mention the findings of Young and Willmott on the break-up of the extended family through housing policy. “Experience in establishing co-operative com
­munities has shown that success requires the careful selection of appli­cants on grounds other than immediate need; this is also true to a smaller extent of local authority housing schemes.”

Allocation:  Since we are considering existing estates where vacancies occur one by one, problems of allocation scarcely arise, and when they do, once again, there is no reason to suppose that the sense of fair play of a tenants’ co-operative is any less developed than that of the housing manager. The swapping of dwellings would probably be easier to arrange between members of a co-operative than through the bureau­cracy of housing management.

Rents:  Few people would deny that the whole field of payment for housing is in an absurd situation, and that if subsidies are to be made (including the concealed subsidy of tax concessions for owner-occupiers) it would be more equitable to subsidise families rather than subsidise particular dwellings. Readers will readily agree that social welfare is no substitute for social justice, but that until we can achieve the latter we have to utilise the former. I assume therefore that after a transfer from municipal to co-operative control, the co-operative would levy rent on its members in relation to its commitments and that subsidies for members would be obtained through the machinery of social welfare rather than through that of housing. We do not want the ability to pay an economic rent to be the criterion of membership of a housing co-operative, while at the same time we know that housing subsidies today do not reach those whose need for them is greatest.

Collection and Accountancy:  A small co-operative might provide these services for itself, a large one might pay for them to be professionally provided.

Upkeep and Maintenance:  This is likely to be a much less expensive proposition for a co-operative than for a council’s maintenance depart­ment. Mr. Campbell notes in his pamphlet that the members of housing co-operatives “have a keen interest in maintaining their homes in good repair and indeed, constantly to improve them”. The co-operative policy statement on Social Ownership[11] remarked that “We see no reason why many councils should not contract with small producer co-operatives for at least the maintenance of their properties.” Exactly the same thing applies to housing co-operatives.

Communal Services:  A real community would probably provide these services on a voluntary rota basis. If in practice it was unable to do this, it could pay for them, utilising the services of its elderly or teenage members.

Good Order:  Any housing manager will tell you of his impotence in the face of anti-social behaviour on estates. Good order comes from good community relationships which are far more likely under conditions of tenant responsibility than external responsibility.

Social Welfare:  Opinions within the world of housing management differ greatly as to the extent to which social welfare is a housing responsibility. It is certain however that the members of a well-developed tenants’ association will see it as a community responsibility. “We are our own social workers,” explained a member of one of the
71 affiliated groups of the Association of London Housing Estates (The Times, 21.6.1967). Cost of Management: The costs of housing management vary greatly from one authority to another. Cullingworth[27] gives a range of from £1 6s. to £23 2s. per year per dwelling. The organisation and methods committee which studied housing management in the London boroughs,[28] suggested that the appropriate staffing of an housing manage­ment department controlling 4,000 dwellings might be 25 people, for 8,000 dwellings 46 people, and for 15,000 dwellings 76 people. These figures are for office staff only and they represent 80% of the present London averages. There is every reason to suppose that the administra­tive costs of self-management would be very much lower than of council management. For specialist services a tenant co-operative could sub­scribe to and use the expertise of a central body of the same kind that is so necessary for a housing society starting from scratch. And in the Co-ownership Development Society we have a possible nucleus for such a body.


  The statutory basis of a local authority’s right to sell its council houses is Section 104 of the Housing Act, 1957, and the only limitation on this is the need for the consent of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, a consent which in no instance so far has ever been refused. The transfer of an estate to a co-operative of its tenants, would, it seems to me, be covered by this provision.

  In London, under Section 23(3) of the London Government Act, 1963, the Minister has power by order, to provide for the transfer to a housing association of any housing accommodation belonging to the Greater London Council or the Council of a London borough provided, in the latter case, that it is outside the borough.

  The financial arrangement for the take-over should probably be based on the experience of the existing co-operative housing societies. It might be for instance that the co-operative is advanced a mortgage by the council (the price agreed being based on the members’ status as sitting tenants) for the whole or a part of the purchase price, any other loan being arranged through the Co-ownership Development Society, and each member contributing to a share liability which might in the first instance be nominal.

  Or, on the other hand, and if the arrangement is to be made more attractive to members than individual house ownership, some arrange­ment must be made for a tenant, on moving out, to receive his share of the appreciation of the property. Mrs. Wallis, who acted as arbi­trator for a co-operative self-build housing society told the National Federation how this was done in her society:

  We took the value of the house from the time the man entered it until the time when he was compelled to leave due to his job having been changed. We did deem that the money and the labour which he had put into that shell, if you like, to improve it quite rightly should be his profit. We felt that it was his own personal effort, and not that of the association or the group.


  However, the other profit which was made over and above that second valuation was divided between that man and his housing association. We felt, again, that part of that extra money was due to the man for his goodwill (the goodwill which he put into the association by being a good member), and he was entitled to something for his labour. We felt that some of it was due to the members for their goodwill as far as he was concerned. We came to a very happy and amicable arrangement. . . . We have never had a squabble. We have never had an argument over the settlement at all.[29]

  Here of course the house was actually sold, but the principle can be adapted to a situation where the tenant is rewarded but the tenancy reverts to the society.


  The tenant take-over of municipal housing is one of those marvellous ideas that is dormant because no one is taking the trouble to propagate it, but which would catch like wildfire once the principle is established in people’s minds. We have to consider the ways of spreading it.

  Firstly it should be spread in those ad hoc tenants’ committees which spring up when the councils announce rent rises. Their imme­diate aim may be to resist this or that item of council policy, but what is their ultimate aim? Surely a tenant take-over is the only logical one. Then it should be spread through tenants’ and community associations, to persuade the members that the experience they have gained of com­munity organisation could really flourish and grow in community control. Then it should be spread through the co-operative movement. Millions of council tenants are co-op members, millions of co-op members are council tenants. They need to be convinced that co-operative ownership and control of housing is really much more important than a derisory dividend on retail purchases, which is all the co-op means in most of their lives today. Then it should be spread to members of housing committees, some of whom will readily connect their own experience of the absurdities of housing policy with the advantages to be found in tenant control. Once the idea is being seriously discussed, the ordinary media of communications will spread it, criticise it, appraise it. The first thing is to get it on the agenda of all these bodies.

  Then we need study of the financial and legal problems. If there were a genuine and militant upsurge of demand from below, these would rapidly follow to event, but it would be helpful to find out where the difficulties lie, and how they might be resolved, from the experience of bodies like the Co-ownership Development Society and the National Federation of Housing Societies and of the handful of existing housing co-operatives.

  Finally we need a working example, a pilot project, to prove to others that it is possible. It may not be in present circumstances a universal solution, it may not be applicable everywhere. But Britain has a higher proportion of municipally owned dwellings than any other Western country. Surely there is room somewhere for an experiment in responsible citizenship, which is what is implied in the transfer of housing from municipal government to self-government.

  “It is curious that left-wing councils, whose mem­bers can hardly be unaware of the advantages of co-operative systems, still maintain a rigidly paternal­istic attitude to housing management.”
architectural review, November 1967

references and sources
  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Lewis E. Waddilove: Housing Associations (P.E.P. Report, 1962).
  2. P. G. Gray: The British Household (The Social Survey, 1949).
  3. Ministry of Housing and Local Government. Parliamentary written answer, November 11, 1965.
  4. D. V. Donnison: The Government of Housing (Penguin Books, 1967).
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Robert Millar: The New Classes: The New Patterns of British Life (Longmans, 1966).
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Sir Milner Holland (chairman): Report of the Committee on Housing in Greater London (HMSO, 1965).
  7. Hous­ing Cor­por­a­tion: Annual Report, 1966.
  8. The Guard­ian, October 21, 1966.
  9. The Labour Party: Homes of the Future, 1956.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Housing: A Co-operative Approach (Co-operative Union, 1959).
  11. 11.0 11.1 Social Ownership and Control (Co-operative Union, 1961).
  12. Harold Campbell: Housing Co-ops and Local Authorities (Co-operative Union, October 1961).
  13. Sir Parker Morris (chairman): Homes for Today and Tomorrow (Min­istry of Hous­ing and Local Govern­ment, HMSO, 1961).
  14. 14.0 14.1 Councils and Their Houses: Management of Estates, Eighth Report of the Housing Management Sub-Committee of the Central Housing Advisory Committee (HMSO, 1959).
  15. D. V. Donnison: “Housing Policy—What of the Future”, Housing, Vol. 23, No. 3, December 1961.
  16. J. B. Cullingworth: English Housing Trends (G. Bell & Sons, 1965).
  17. 17.0 17.1 Ferdynand Zweig: The Worker in an Affluent Society (Heinemann, 1961).
  18. 18.0 18.1 James Tucker: Honourable Estates (Gollancz, 1966).
  19. Stanley Alderson: Britain in the Sixties: Housing (Penguin Books, 1962).
  20. Ronald Franken­berg: Communities in Britain: Social Life in Town and Country (Penguin Books, 1966).
  21. Norman Dennis: “Changes in Function and Leadership Renewal” So­cio­log­ical Review n.s.6, 1958, cited by Morris and Mogey: The Sociology of Housing (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965).
  22. 22.0 22.1 John Hayes: “Tenants’ Associations”, Soci­ety of Hous­ing Man­agers Quarterly Journal, Vol. V, No. 11, July 1963.
  23. Gerry Williams: “Teen Canteen: End or Beginning” (anarchy 30, Vol. 3, No. 8, August 1963).
  24. 24.0 24.1 R. N. Morris and John Mogey: The Sociology of Housing (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965).
  25. Eric Lyons: “Domestic Building and Speculative Development”. Paper read at the RIBA on March 25, 1958 (RIBA Journal, May 1958).
  26. John Barr: “What Kind of Homes do People Want?” (New Society, No. 163, November 11, 1965).
  27. J. B. Cullingworth: Housing and Local Government in England and Wales (Allen and Unwin, 1966).
  28. Metropolitan Boroughs’ (Organisation and Methods) Committee: General Review of Housing Management, 1963.
  29. Report of 25th Annual General Meeting of NFHS. Quarterly Bulletin No. 100 July 1962.