CO-OPS IN SMALL HEATH – ALAN CLAWLEY

During the 70s the last of the low-rise council houses were built in the western part of Small Heath on the land cleared under Compulsory Purchase Orders made during the 60s. At the City Council a new Urban Renewal approach to housing renovation, driven by a multi-disciplinary officers’ group led by Councillor Taylor (Labour), was an idea which came out of an Urban Renewal Conference in 1972. In the same year the Government set out its plan to attach the label “Inner City” to Small Heath under its Inner Area Studies Programme. Lambeth and Liverpool were also honoured with the same dubious privilege. The Department of Environment defined the Inner Area as: “The zone of old residential and industrial development which lies between the city centre and the newer suburbs, and in which is to be found a high incidence of the range of physical, social and economic problems frequently referred to collectively as ‘urban deprivation’”. “…a sense of the area’s decline was perhaps the most strongly felt aspect of deprivation of all.”

Birmingham City Council in 1975 was highly centralised and concentrated in large city offices. Bush House on Broad Street was the fortress-like headquarters of the City Housing Department, a place held in fear and loathing by Council tenants. The City Engineer ruled his empire from Baskerville House (a building I once heard described as a fine example of fascist architecture equal to anything in the Third Reich). There was still a tradition of strong departmental autonomy (empire-building) left over from the era of Manzoni, the City Engineer. It was all the more remarkable therefore that in order to implement the Urban Renewal programme the City created a new “ad hoc” multi-disciplinary chief officers’ team to include Environmental Health, Housing, Social Services, Planning and Engineers. But the geographical area in which the Team was allowed to work was strictly confined to “declared” renewal areas. Urban Renewal could not go into the old clearance areas where central departments still held absolute sway.

Before 1974 there was only limited scope for housing associations in Small Heath, but after 1974 they began to buy up poorly-maintained houses owned by private landlords and renovate them for the sitting tenants. Midland Area Improvement Housing Association was active in Small Heath from the late 70s and helped the new housing co-operatives to get started with a determined band of housing workers and local residents.

The Co-operative Wholesale Society that had pioneered Birmingham’s first department store in Small Heath disappeared altogether in the mid 1970s, presumably following its predominantly white working class members to the outer suburbs and satellite towns. The Asian corner shop became firmly established in this period during which Small Heath acquired many small family-run shops that stayed open from early morning to late evening to sell grocery, newspapers, videos, stamps, health remedies, cigarettes, and hardware.

The period from 1977 to 1984 was one of intense activity in Small Heath. It started with the pioneering Facelift scheme in Little Green followed by the designation of action areas to cover the whole of Small Heath with various schemes.  Housing Action areas were declared – Little Green, Small Heath Park, as well as General Improvement Areas – St Benedicts, Digby Park, (see Map), In the space of 5 years millions were spent on improving the houses and their immediate environment. The most well-known was the “Envelope Scheme” in Housing Action Areas. Other areas which were judged to be less run-down had Limited Envelope Scheme and Environmental Works, including street works, paving and trees.

In between leaving the Inner Area Study in 1976 and joining Urban Renewal in 1977 I was asked to join the voluntary Small Heath Co-operative Housing Advisory Group. This was made up of several professionals who had seen the opportunity for developing housing co-ops following the passing of the 1974 Housing Act which established the Housing Corporation and a system of capital funding (Housing Association Grant or “HAG”). Small Heath’s first co-op was Holmwood and Storrs which was already going by the time I got involved with the Group. An active member of the Group was Sylvia Allen who was the Team Clerk and who lived in Holmwood Road. Sylvia was one of the key figures in its early days although she eventually moved out of Birmingham to live and to Urban Renewal’s Head Office to work. Holmwood Co-op was opened in 1977 and followed by Victoria, Triangle, Small Heath Park 1984, Blake Lane and the Bordesley Shell Co-op the number of dwellings owned by co-ops in Small Heath rose to over a hundred by the end of the century.

The Small Heath Co-operative Housing Advisory group decided that “Victoria” be the Group’s next target for a housing co-op. I was at the time Chair of the Victoria Residents Association and agreed to use the occasion of the Annual General Meeting in January 1977 to float the idea of a Victoria housing cooperative. Urban Renewal gave the Group some names of landlords who owned run-down rented houses in the area. One of these was Jack Cotton the estate agent. The houses were mostly occupied by elderly people paying very low rents. This was presumably the reason the landlord gave for not spending any money on their upkeep. Armed with this list a few members of the Group, Ian Young, Peter White, Jon Fitzmaurice, Mike Martin and I, called on the tenants. We carried the good news that the government would give us money if we formed our own housing co-operatiive, bought their house from the landlord and renovated it to a high standard for them to live in. At first this was received with healthy scepticism but we had won our first convert, Phil Parsons who lived with his elderly mother in Cyril Road. We began to form a group which eventually contained the seven founder members (Phil Parsons, Kath Hoey, Paddy Hoey, Terry Currier, Mrs Parsons, Hazel and me).  A grant was received from a charitable foundation to apply to the National Federation of Housing Associations for the use of their Model Rules and for the co-op to be registered as an Industrial and Provident Society.

The Victoria Tenants Co-opera­tive became an Industrial and Provident Society in 1978 and was also registered by the Housing Corporation so as to be eligible for Housing Association Grants. It decided early on to appoint Midland Area Improvement Housing Association as its development agent and Gwynne Roberts as its architect. This was only natural as Peter White of SHCHAG worked for Midland Area and used Gwynne Roberts too. There was no real discussion of alternatives because the Co-op was keen to get on and get the houses bought and renovated. Terri Roberts, an owner-occupier planning to sell to the co-op, became the first chair, Phil Parsons the Treasurer and Chris Currier the Secretary.

The Small Heath Co-operative Housing Advisory Group eventually turned into a formally constituted secondary co-operative, Small Heath Co-operative Housing Services, and was given funding from the Inner City Partnership Programme for several years. This gave the work some stability and a team of paid staff to enable it to support the growth of co-ops in Small Heath (see NFHA Yearbook for details). One of its workers was Jane Straw who worked with the residents of Byron Road to form the Small Heath Park Housing Co-operative from 1980 to 1983. (see later for personal involvement)

The Sunday Mercury published an account and a photograph of the members of the Small Heath Park Housing Co-operative on its housing site on Cooksey Road in July 1982. The report, headed “Digging in to stay together”, said, “When their homes were threatened with demolition, the families of Byron Road vowed that the community they had built over a lifetime should never be destroyed. They would stick together even if that meant building a brand new street of their own. Yesterday – after a five-year battle – the families finally saw the foundation stone laid on a £1million scheme that will do just that. A total of 47 new homes are to be built just a stones throw from their old terraced houses in the inner city Birmingham suburb of Small Heath. To beat the bulldozer, Byron Road families formed themselves into a housing co-operative, a self-help organisation which legally empowered them to become part of the high-powered world of housing development. But they hit a series of problems. First the site earmarked for the project by Birmingham City Council was caught in a tangle of freehold problems. Then it became officially set aside for the building of a new silicon chip factory. When that plan was finally abandoned by councillors the co-operative was finally allowed to sign contracts. With money from the Government’s Housing Corporation and guided by a committee of residents building work at last began. The foundation stone on the scheme was laid yesterday by the former chairman of the city’s housing committee, Coun. Hugh McCallion.”  

By 1983 our son was eleven and our daughter eight years old. We needed a three-bedroom house. We had hoped that Victoria Tenants Co-operative would meet our need but this was not to be. The small terrace houses that the Co-op bought in the early days were the same as the one we already lived in at 73 Cyril Road and not amenable to conversion to 3 bedroom houses because the small back bedroom was usually converted to a bathroom. We were told that the alternative of building an outbuilding bathroom on the ground floor was too expensive and not really acceptable as it was too far from the bedrooms. We had our eye on a larger house 2 Lloyd Street but this looked unlikely to materialise. So we approached Small Heath Park Housing Co-operative who were looking for people to replace those who had dropped off the waiting list for their new scheme on Cooksey Road. The scheme had taken four years to reach completion because of the complications of the land deal with the City Council during which many of the original members of the Byron Road community had accepted other offers of housing and left the area.

The story is told in the residents’ words in Community Forum’s book published in 1990 and entitled “Clearance: The View From The Street” (page 142) – ” In the 1950’s we read in the paper that there was a plan for a Small Heath By-pass that was likely to threaten us. There was uncertainty from then on. That exact scheme was scrapped and there was a long silence. In the 1970’s we heard that a modified version of the plan had been resurrected. We went to the planning department and saw the new plans. In 1974 the council issued a notice to all residents warning us not to spend money on our homes as they were going to be demolished within three years. We’d seen what happened with other areas being cleared and we weren’t having that. We got together and we were good neighbours and wanted to stay in the area and we didn’t like the council’s idea of re-housing. At first we tried for a rehab co-op. Then we decided to build some new homes in the area for ourselves. It took twenty residents fifteen long years to achieve what we have now. When we set up the co-op we went round all the houses and all had the same option to join. Some couldn’t wait, but many others (like the Secretary’s Asian neighbour) were not interested when they learnt they could not buy. In June 1978 the Housing Committee approved a site for our use. In August 1978 we learnt that the City did not own the freehold on the site. We approached a firm of solicitors. In February 1979 the City withdrew their offer of land. Someone been lobbying to use the site for a silicon chip factory. We then contacted a professor at Birmingham university who told us the air had to be 99% pure for a silicon chip factory – the site was quite unsuitable. During this time Mrs Taylor went to local councillor Frank Carter who said that if Inmos (the company) had only a 1% chance of the site he would still fight for them against the Co-op. Our local MP Roy Hattersley behaved in a similar manner. We were once invited as observers to a meeting at the Council. Councillors Carter and O’Keefe derided us, and it fell to a Conservative Councillor Freda Cocks to defend us as a group doing something to help themselves and the City. In November 1979 the site was restored to us and a price agreed. The Co-op got a pre-loan approval and a loan application was made. In March 1980 the City decided to impose new conditions re nomination rights (they wanted 50%). There were differences between the Housing Corporation and the City. In June 1980 Sketch plans were produced. In July conveyancing started and by September detailed planning permission was granted. In November we had problems with conveyancing. The City objected to a licensing scheme and the Housing Corpo­ration objected to pre-emption clauses in the contract re the building period. There was no liaison between departments and exchange of contracts was delayed. In April 1981 the dispute was resolved and on 3rd June 1981 contracts were exchanged for possess­ion of the Cooksey Road site. In October the scheme was put out tender.  In February 1982 the Housing Corporation gave approval and the building contract was signed. One month later the builders began work. In July 1982 a foundation stone was laid by Councillor Hugh Mc Callion and in April 1983 the first members at last moved in.” 

We attended the interview and were offered a house. We chose number 26 Taywood Drive and moved in on 4th July 1983. Hazel started straight away to attend Committee meetings, taking seriously her obligation to be a good co-operator. At our first General Meeting in April 1984 we were both elected to the committee. We soon found that the founding caucus held very tightly onto the reins of the co-op. It was clear that we had joined their co-op and we were not one of them. Even the street name “Taywood Drive” was a way of immortalising its two founding families, the Taylors and Attwoods. It seemed however that the Housing Corporation had put them under pressure to recruit more young people and it was true that the vacancies they weren’t able to fill from their own number were the family houses. The split between the “founders” and the “newcomers” was thus reinforced by age and status. It was a division that proved impossible to overcome.

In the housing co-operative two issues brought us to the point of exasperation. The case of the “barbed wire” in October 1984 illustrated the caucus’s contempt of the other members of the committee when they decided to do something. A rash of barbed wire appeared on top of the fences making it look a bit like a concentration camp. When challenged to say when and how this was decided we were told that there had been a “quorum” which took the decision. So, with another committee member, we took it down and put it in a shed until the committee could decide the matter properly. We called a special committee meeting and passed a resolution that all matters affecting the common areas should be decided by a general members’ meeting. Then we handed back the wire. The second issue was a tussle of a more serious nature in which Hazel was caught up on the Allocations Sub-committee. The Co-op had received an application from an Asian man who had just got married and was living with his mother in Langley Road. They therefore needed a family house where they could all continue to live together and presumably have children. The caucus insisted that the Co-op had a policy of providing housing for single families only and this was a case of two house­holds living in one house. They were adamant that the application should be rejected. We suspected that the real reason was to keep Asian families out of the co-op but this was strenu­ously denied. Hazel consulted the staff at Small Heath Co-opera­tive Services who agreed with her that such a policy would have the effect of discriminating against Asian applicants. It was hard to prove because the policy was not written down.  Hazel tried but failed to find any record of the alleged policy any discussion or decisions made on the matter recorded in the minutes. They had defeated her by sheer doggedness and by keeping certain matters in the realm of the verbal. On many more occasions this pattern was repeated to the frustration and anger of those of us who came to see ourselves as the “opposition party”. The minutes between 1984 and 1985 do record the attempts we made to widen the involvement of committee members in the running of the co-op but all of these ended in failure. The only concessions were years later on our second attempt when three “train­ing sessions” were held during 1993 at which the Chair, Secretary and Treasurer explained their role to the few members of the committee who turned up. One of these ended in acrimony as the racist attitude of one member surfaced and was confronted only by Hazel and me.

SHCHAG became a secondary Co-operative called Small Heath Co-operative Housing Services and for a time managed Small Heath Park’s rent account until they were dismissed. During my time as Chair the Co-op bought its own computer and software and began to manage the accounts from an office in one of the flats on the estate. SHCHS became Birmingham Co-operative Housing Services and was taken over by the Accord Housing Association. It moved out of its small and run-down office on the Coventry Road and took up more salubrious accommodation in the Bond, a converted warehouse in Digbeth.

Edited Extract from A History of Small Heath

6 March 2010

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