True stories to my granddaughter Kay.
Hi Kay, as with most things, the most tenuous threads of fate pull together in forming both a personal as well as an interactive history of me with others and others with me. So after forming the charity PHIG (Parent Handicap Information Group) with Ann – your Nan I was elected as Chair of the Harold Hill Tenants and Residents Association in 1981. My Committee was quite large with a number of – let’s call them spirited individuals. I was only 37 years old and considered by many to be just a young pup. A lot of the Committee were 60s / 70s and some even older. One erasable character was an ex-Councillor named Jim Driscall who seemed to have a passion to confront and find the negative side of any proposal.
Other politicians like the then current Conservative M.P. Sir Nicholas Bonsor and Labour Councillors like Geoff Otter, Reg Whiting and Ron Whitworth who were then very active on the Hill began to see the potential votes of a very large organisation – with over 2000 members in the relatively small area called Harold Hill began planning how we, myself and the two Bettys could extract the most influence we could over any of the various political factions.
Betty Strathern was absolutely resolute however that real power lay in the hands of ordinary people and if politicians wanted to snuggle up to us to get an influence on how our membership might cast their vote in an election, then we should extract every ounce of betterment for our members and their families that we could. I happened to agree with Betty on this and started to take a bigger interest in who held power in the local community and how they might affect changes.
Remind me to tell you of Betty’s daughter Carol, sometime later. To my utter shame, I promised Betty, just before she died I would keep an eye out for Carol and watch over her and her boy but for whatever reasons, I never did. I am so ashamed as Betty was so ill that day laying on her settee – the summer day was baking hot, Betty was clearly very ill and I had dropped a cooling fan off to Carol, so that her Mum would be more comfortable. But NO, back to where I was.
Perhaps early 1983 when I was in the HHTRA office in the back of what later I named as the Betty Strathern Centre in Myrtle Road, one Saturday, a nice individual politely knocked on the office door. Local elections were due to take place again in the May of 1986 and he (I think his name was Duncan McCannon) asked if he might leave some leaflets on the tables for the usual Saturday night entertainment. (We had a pianist and drummer most Saturday nights and the hall was usually packed, when ordinary people would get up on the small stage and sing). I only did that once, when I was very drunk and sang “my old man said follow the van”. Anyway, it was evident that this dynamic young man had a long term strategy to woo the residents of Harold Hill away from the Labour Party and after 4 years of leaflets, flyers and activism he was confident he could persuade people to vote S.D.P. (Socialist Democratic Party).
Funnily enough, around that time two particular events happened. I had formed a splinter group or sub-committee of the HHTRA called the Home Owners Protection Group. Formed from the people who had exercised their right to buy under Margaret Thatcher’s relatively new Right to Buy Act. This was only a small group of about twenty people, but they were very vociferous. The second was a Television interview I did for ITV’s London Tonight.
In the first – The HOPG had learnt (simply because Betty Strathern and I had engaged an independent accredited building surveyor) that the homes that they had bought had serious structural and other faults due to the way the GLC had handled to building construction programme. O.K. they, for the most part had only taken out mortgages for 10 to15 thousand pounds to buy, but when I made the results of the Surveyors investigation known all hell erupted.
I contacted our M.P. Sir Nic. Bonsor and (as you do) invited him to a meeting of residents in the hall one Wednesday night. Well he, Sir Nic. had no idea what was awaiting him that evening as he started to address the meeting. I was Chairing the meeting – and after a suitable period of time when Sir Nic clearly feared for his life, I suggested he might like to consider arranging for a small delegation of our new buyers to meet the Housing Minister. He leaped at the excuse to remove himself from the meeting, promising that he would be in touch very soon.
To give him his due he did actually arrange for us to meet the Housing Minister, on the 16th floor of one of the tower blocks in Marsham Street. I thought Ian Gow was both pompous and arrogant in his first few words addressing my small group of new buyers by saying to Sir Nicolas “well old boy – its caveat emptor – is it not”? Let the buyer beware. I don’t think Ian Gow had really appreciated what six home buyers had thought of his housing policy before that night, but he had by the time we went. When I argued that these were people buying their homes at both the behest and encouragement of his Prime Minister – Margaret Thatcher and the complicit deviousness of the GLC not to have told them about the inherent faults was both ‘not only fundamentally wrong but also tantamount to a con trick’ perpetrated by the GLC. It seemed to me that the GLC by this fraud had shed their responsibility for future repairs, and I was going to make it clear to the rest of Harold Hill and others considering taking up the option of right to buy right across the country just how one sided the Government could be towards ordinary hard working people.
I was sorry, sometime later, when the news reported that Ian Gow had been assassinated by the IRA. However then we were ushered out and down in the lift in double quick time by two burly security guards, but much to my amazement we (the HHTRA) received a very nice letter only a few days later from the Chief Executive of the GLC. We were informed that as the GLC was in the process of being subsumed by the Local Authority – who would in future be responsible for dealing with complaints surrounding alleged faults on properties defined as the fourth phase of the Harold Hill development programme both senior Havering and GLC Officers would be will to discuss our concerns at another meeting to be held at 8 pm in the Myrtle Road hall the following Wednesday.
Bert James, the Chairman of Havering’s Housing Committee turned up first, on time, with a senior Housing Officer. Both sat nervously waiting for the GLC people to arrive and clearly avoiding any conversation with me, Betty or the representative of the Home Owners. By ten past eight Betty began to express her disappointment in the failure of the GLC to show for the meeting, but I overruled her and suggested perhaps traffic difficulties had developed and we should give at least another ten minutes, for them to attend.
At eight twenty there was still no GLC people so I declared the meeting open and set out an agenda where we wanted to talk to the Council (on behalf of new home owners) about the properties Havering Council would now be responsible for. Councillor Bert James tore into us in a quite unexpected tirade, accusing us, (well me) of exaggerating the problems. He had no intention of spending anymore of his time, on our fantasies and was therefore leaving the meeting.
Storming to the door, with his Housing Officer he collided with the representatives from the GLC who had indeed been held up by a traffic accident on the A12. How embarrassing it was for Councillor James to have to return to the meeting. He was clearly annoyed at the GLC for turning up late but even more for the angst he had demonstrated. It had clearly put him on the wrong footing to deal with us.
I took every advantage and began after a short introduction to show photos of poor workmanship and building faults our surveyor had identified in his private report to us. As every photo was handed round the meeting I emphasised to Bert James how my fertile imagination had spirited each example of exaggerating problems. I was sorry some years later as I came to like and respect Bert James.
We could only speculate after they (The Council and the GLC) had all left the meeting that the GLC, were sympathetic to our complaints, as they did not care because the GLC was being closed down by the Government.
The long and the short of this was that a few months later all the then home owners were offered a one off £2000 payment in recognition and agreement that no further claim could be made against the Council or the GLC. When you consider the houses were selling for £10 – £15 thousand – it was a very good deal.
The second event was a young family in Jenny Path, on the Hill, where one of the children had dropped a large bottle of something and it broke the rim of the toilet bowl. The Mum had phoned the Council only to be told she would be charged for its replacement. Betty Strathern was outraged that the Council had basically said “until you can pay – just get on with no toilet”. When Betty rang me, I said, “get hold of the papers and the television people”. Betty did not need asking twice. Within half an hour I had visited the house and spoken to Mum who clearly could not afford the cost of a rechargeable new pan. So I assured her that if the worst came to the worst I would fit her new pan by the end of the day but if she would co-operate it might be possible for other families in the same circumstances not to have to run the gauntlet of pay up or don’t get, from uncaring housing officers.
About three hours later a huge great van/lorry turned up with an extendable periscope Arial fixed to its roof, and with the briefest chat from the interviewer the mum, explained to the camera that her daughter had accidentally broken the toilet. After she explained her fear at having to find God knows how much money to get it replaced – the camera turned to me and the interviewer (after announcing I was the Chair of the HHRTA) said “as one of the largest Tenants Association in the country, how do you feel about the way this family have been treated”?
I went completely over the top and accused the housing department and the then Conservative Council of not caring about working class people, quick to take extortionate rents from poor people who were not poor by choice, an administration who were so far removed from ordinary people that I looked forward to the day when common ordinary people who had an ounce of humanity in their bones could make their voices heard in the corridors of power where policy decisions would be tempered with common sense.
Back in the HHTRA office an hour later the phone rang and the Director of Housing informed me that he had seen the programme and had authorised the emergency plumber to fit a new toilet immediately. However, this was a good will gesture on his part and he would not be so generous if I used the media to run more of my hate campaigns in the future.
Within the week a guy call Councillor Geoff Otter came to see me and offered that the Labour Party was very aware of the injustice for people living on the Hill as opposed to other parts of Havering. In just chatting Geoff Otter who of course knew about the HHTRA and the tireless work of the two Betty’s was surprised to learn of my relatively recent input into the organisation.
It turned out that Geoff had a very disabled daughter, then about eleven years old, and wanted to help PHIG in any way he could to reach other parents who were struggling to raise children with disabilities. We had quite a lot in common and got on well albeit that I was so much younger and had not much interest in politics. I told Geoff that Duncan was (it seemed to me) making a lot of effort to attract people to join the SDP and surprise surprise soon after the HHTRA Committee were asked if we would allow the Labour Party to hold a drop in surgery once a month where people could have a face to face meeting with their local Councillor. The Committee agreed on condition that if any other Political Party asked us we would provide the hall for them to also hold a local surgery.
The Hall bar was open each Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday night as well as each Saturday and Sunday lunch time. I of course had to attend each and every session (well it was my duty to support the organisation). I was an avid reader of books in those days and it was not unusual for members to come up to the table I was sitting at and – interrupting my reading, ask me if I would write letters for them. I really did not mind doing that as I have always enjoyed words. Often people would say they would like to ask their Councillor about problems they were experiencing but did not know how to say clearly what their problems were. I therefore suggested that – if I jot down the issues for them it would help when they actually got to the meeting.
Geoff Otter came to see me at our house one evening with another guy called Ted Reader, who was the Branch Secretary of the Labour Party and they both asked if I would consider joining the Party. I agreed and thus spent the next fifteen years at the sharp end of Politics.
The requirements of being a (potential) Labour Councillor, in those days, were (a) to be a member of a trades union. Well I had not only been a member of the Plumbers Union for many years, I was also some years later the Trade Union Steward representing some 30 odd plumbers. I was also very active later in 1983 as a steward in NALGO (The National Association of Local Government Officers).
The work force of Hackney Council, in those days was made up of so many diverse factions. Most were reasonable but passionate about life, like me they hated the Tory strangle hold on local government, and the miners’ strike with its consequences reduced us to frustrated tears of pity and sorrow. I think my donations to the miners must have helped a number of families in those days – but I was so angry with the Thatcher Government.
I digress. The Council workforce in those days had a whole panoply of diverse groups working for them and I was making a name as a solid left wing steward.
Some while later the “Class War” group let me know that they were going to a demo about the Vietnam War at Trafalgar Square over the weekend. Of course I went and the police hostility was disgusting with full blown charging by their police horses into the demonstrators. The whisper went round to reconvene at Grosvenor Square (The American Embassy) there the hostility of the police had no limitations. MI6 cameras were evident everywhere whilst police wielding batons rained down on the demonstrators with a vigour I could not believe. In fairness, the mounted police were pissed off as pockets full of marbles were emptied under the horses hooves whilst we screamed abuse at the pigs and cheered as every so often a horse fell over and the pig rider was no longer so arrogant. Serendipity – I was not arrested.