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Why is Lambeth dismantling its housing co-operatives?

Many of the co-ops, which were meant to be a “shortlife” solution for long housing waiting lists and run-down properties in the late 1970s and early 1980s, are still there today. Now, they are being sold off at auction, and long-existing communities are

A man walks through a housing estate near Brixton. Photo: Getty

In September last year, the Evening Standard reported that Chris Huhne, recently released from jail, had been seen in south London doing some house hunting:

“Huhne was spotted in a group-viewing of two houses in Lilleshall Road in Clapham Old Town. Both are modest Grade II-listed terraced cottages, guide-priced at more than £500,000 each.”

It’s not known if he understood the provenance of these properties. If he had, perhaps he would have thought twice about making a purchase.

On 29 January Lambeth residents will meet outside the town hall in Brixton, to protest against the council’s sale of housing co-operatives. At the lobby Lambeth councillors will be asked to sign a pledge against the eviction of long-term housing co-op resident Maritza Tschepp.

Maritza and her family have lived in their home for 33 years. In that time she’s dug a trench for mains water, installed central heating and put in a new bathroom. Her efforts have boosted the value of the small Georgian house in Stockwell from almost nothing in 1980 to around £700,000.

She is among the few dozen people left in the borough’s housing that was handed over to co-operatives in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Back then Lambeth council handed decrepit houses left abandoned and with Compulsory Purchase Ordered for demolition to housing co-ops.

These co-ops were comprised of people with nowhere else to go and no prospect of buying anything else. Many were on the housing waiting list and continue to be so to this day. The council stood back from these “shortlife” communities. They took over the maintenance of the houses (spending tens of thousands of pounds), running social housing at no cost to the borough.  

As one tenant tells me: “They were really supportive in the early days with lists of void properties, they’d hand us the keys so that we could look at the houses & decide if we could make them habitable. You couldn’t imagine the current administration doing that.”

But as the council stood back, “shortlife” started to become “longlife”. Decades have passed, with councillors admitting that some of the houses wouldn’t even be standing were it not for the people living in them.

A few years ago, the council decided the majority of the households would be sold off at auction. It had found itself short of funds, and London was experiencing a property boom that made the homes hugely valuable. There were about 30 co-ops across Lambeth. Now only a few remain, mostly in the Clapham Town area. A few outposts remain in Stockwell, Brixton and Gypsy Hill.

Sale is made by auction to the highest bidder – most reach £500,000 or more. There were a number of fierce critics, among them the Labour MP Kate Hoey, who said the sell-off took no account of the tenants’ role in preserving and improving these assets.

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But there was a darker, human side to this story. As the journalist Julian Hall, a tenant of over a decade, has said: “These were self-reliant, autonomous communities swapping skills, repairing each other’s houses within their means: a living, breathing community. Few of its members are likely to live in such collaborative neighbourhoods again.” For what it’s worth, Maritza invested heavily in her community, setting up a local youth group and running it as an unpaid volunteer for over 20 years.

Another man had to fetch his possessions while prospective auction purchasers inspected the house, because bailiffs seized it 20 minutes after he’d verified the council’s claim he wouldn’t be evicted in court, according to this report.

Jimmy Rogers, 74, spent decades running a community basketball team in Brixton. Lambeth pursued him for his home a few years after honouring him for his work, but protesters forced the council to back down. His situation remains unresolved.

One man collapsed four days before his trial in April with a heart attack. Children have suffered stress: one family were shifted out during their daughter’s A-levels, even though they agreed to move after 30 years. They were offered storage as far away as Chelmsford to help.

According to campaigners, offers to re-house residents involve joining “Choice-Based Lettings”, which was a system already failing most people on Lambeth’s waiting list. They claim the lettings team is acting especially vindictively in their cases, giving them homes in a poor condition and in one case, an asbestos problem.

In its defence, the cabinet minister for housing, Pete Robbins, has told the Guardian it’s all about priorities. He said: “I can’t prioritise this small number of people over the 1,200 people in temporary accommodation, the 15,000 people on the waiting list, who also want the opportunity for an affordable home. I don’t think a secure council tenancy for life is a terrible outcome.”

In response to this, a tenant tells me: “Residents who get final offers in housing association properties (i.e. they have no other option than to accept the property offered) only have fixed term tenancies, this may be only one or two year tenancies – nothing like a ‘secure. . . tenancy for life’ as Robbins says. All final offers should have to be council properties if his statement is going to actually be correct. Both he and Lib Peck trot this misinformation out on a regular basis.”

But part of the reason the tenants are so frustrated is their attempts to establish permanence have been ongoing for years, and the council has only recently been opposed since the market exploded. There were a number of ideas put forward to establish permanancy in the 1980s, and in the 1990s, Labour housing chair Tom Franklin even brought in “megadeals” in partnership with housing associations, but they were eventually scuppered by the council’s own land evaluation.  

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In 2012 a proposal for a Super Co-op was put forward with support from social housing experts and the Co-operative Enterprise Hub. Campaigners say they’ve faced interminable manoeuvring from the council, including a lack of will to meet and answer direct questions, denying proper meeting minutes, and a refusal to answer direct questions.

And much of the council’s behaviour certainly seems a combination of evasive and aggressive. Many are asking why these two FOI requests about sale proceeds (here and here) remain unanswered. They’re far from the only questions being raised about the sales process.

Campaigners say that those not qualifying for what’s left of legal aid face bankruptcy because the council’s lawyers are charging costs up to five times higher than defendants’ solicitors, and are deploying some aggressive tactics in their efforts to get the tenants out.

One local Labour politician – who had initially told the residents the evictions shouldn’t be happening – recently sent a tenant an email seen by the New Statesman, which contains these lines:

“You then rejected my advice to accept Lambeth’s rehousing offer and the Council has predictably continued eviction proceedings...The fact is that I gave you the best advice possible in the circumstances, you are not going to gain control or ownership of the Council property in which youhave been living on minimal rent for 11 years.”

As the tenant tells me, it’s factually inaccurate (possession proceedings had already begun), and on the issue of rent, he would reply in another email:

“[Your] aside on rent shows that you have not grasped key elements of this issue – addressed in another email. The council refused to have any direct dealings with the co-ops after their establishment and therefore charged no rent. The monies spent on repairs and administration were set by the co-ops in the absence of any involvement from the council, and this rate varied between co-ops.”

A reply has not been forthcoming.

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Perhaps you feel that Lambeth has its housing priorities right. The fact remains that these residents are largely low-waged or pensionable, while some are disabled and housebound, dependent on their immediate neighbours. When they brought houses scheduled for demolition back into use in the 1980s they were acting in line with government thinking of the time.

And it’s a story taking place in this context: recent statistics show that in the year 2012/2013, £38m of council tax were left uncollected by Lambeth, while its new town hall cost £50m. In the past, councillors have claimed the coops brought “a welcome permanence and continuity to the area”. Why is it dismantling them?