Monday, 30 March 2009

My family and urban extensions

“You greens are all a bunch of middle-class NIMBYs who don’t give a damn about working-class people stuck on the housing list, or the homeless!”
Anonymous quote that, with slight variations, often appears to crop up when the RSS plans are discussed.

An easy accusation and is it true? Or is it that some of us know from bitter experience that building new houses on green field sites merely produces homes out of the reach of the vast majority of those stuck on the housing list or without a home at all. For your perusal, here is my family’s personal history of urban extensions in the Bristol area.

My maternal grandfather was called Joseph, he was the fourth Joseph in a line stretching back to the early 19th century. The family had moved, like many other families, as economic refugees from the surrounding countryside - they had originally worked on local farms but as farming became less labour intensive and work difficult to find, they joined the vast migration to the industrial urban areas like Bristol. Having settled in the Old Market area of Bristol, in 1890 my great-grandfather was born. An only child, this Joseph (let’s refer to him as Joseph III) was the son of a pot seller and a rag and bone dealer, who like many of my relatives both before and since found the only way to escape poverty was to join the army. Having contracted diseases on behalf of Queen and Country around the world, he left the army in early 1914, having by that time got married – but, unfortunately for him, a “proper” war broke out in Europe and he was immediately called up, leaving his wife (pregnant with my grandfather) to stay with her parents in overcrowded St Judes.

Joseph III served throughout WWI, was twice wounded but managed to survive the conflict. In 1918, he returned home and the family began to grow. The area they lived in was a slum but, not to worry, the Prime Minister of the time, Lloyd George was promising “homes fit for heroes” to be built for the generation that had sacrificed so much on the killing fields of Flanders. Let’s meet urban extension number one.

As part of this "homes fit for heroes" plan, three million homes would be built in the twenty year period between the wars – the same figure as is estimated today as being required for the next twenty years. In the Bristol area, the figure was in the region of 38,000 homes built on green fields to the south, east and north of the city – this can be compared to the 37,000 or so planned today, also with extensions to the south, east and north. The housing shortage in Bristol in 1919 was estimated at 8,000 – today there are 10,000 on the housing list. It all sounds very familiar doesn’t it?

So my great-grandfather with his exemplary war record on behalf of his country and with his growing family (now reduced by the loss of two children to the Spanish Influenza pandemic) but eventually reaching eight, living in “slum” housing with his in-laws – could, of course, expect to be one of the first to be rehoused. Yeah, right, and pigs might fly.

Of the 38,000 new homes built in the inter-war period in Bristol, some 60% were constructed for the private open market, with the other 40% being what we like nowadays to call social housing (at that time, council housing). My great-grandfather could only dream of being able to afford to buy a house, and as for the council housing; the construction of the council housing was financed by a three-way scheme – a subsidy from central government, a subsidy from local government raised by increasing the rates, and a large increase in the rents. The rent charges required were well beyond the means of the vast majority of those living in the poorest areas of the city. Just like the later “right to buy” introduced during the Thatcher era, the new housing were available only to the better-off working classes, whilst those on the bottom rung were effectively marginalised.

In the end, in 1930, 12 years after the promise of “homes fit for heroes”, a new housing act targetted those living in the slums, including those of Bristol; however it was not until 1937 that Joseph III’s family was finally moved out to new houses at Filwood Park. Unfortunately Joseph III had died in 1935 without ever seeing his promised home fit for a hero. It was his widow who moved with her eight children to their new home, where they quickly learnt to hide when the rentman came calling for the rents they couldn’t afford to pay – they were not alone, about a third of council house occupiers were in arrears with their rent at any one time.

In 1938, my grandfather (Joseph IV) married a girl whose family had also been moved following slum clearance in The Dings, and they too put their names on the housing list. They settled in for a long wait, as once again war broke out, and my grandfather was called up into the army – he landed at Normandy but survived unlike his brother who was killed outside Caen. When peace came in 1945, my grandfather, like many others, voted for change and Labour and the welfare state was voted in. Once more, promises were made about a new England, where everybody would enjoy the right to a decent home without being overcrowded.

In Bristol, more green fields were built upon as part of yet another 20 year plan – it was decided that people shouldn’t live in the city centre at all and so the city expanded again and once again homes were built on the south, the east and the north of the city, including 10,000 homes built on the slopes of Dundry, at Hartcliffe and Withywood. My grandfather, now with a family that would eventually number ten, had become a bricklayer and helped build many of the houses in Hartcliffe. But once again he had to wait his turn until eventually, after nearly twenty years since going on the council waiting list in 1938, they were moved to the new estate - only to find that, unless they got a job at the new tobacco processing plant, they were now totally dependant upon public transport (consisting of an unreliable bus service) for the journey to areas of employment in Bedminster, Brislington and St Philip’s Marsh.

So here we are again, 10,000 new homes to be built at Ashton Vale and many of my relatives find themselves once more on the council housing list and almost certainly will be unable to afford to buy the vast majority of the homes that will be constructed on the new development. With probably only about 1,000 of the new homes likely to be “affordable” homes and 10,000 plus on the waiting list, they have less than a 1 in 10 chance of getting “lucky” and being offered an affordable home.

But, even if they were offered one of the new homes, they don’t want to live in Ashton Vale – they want to live in Hartcliffe, it’s where they were brought up and where the vast majority of our family live. Strange as some outsiders might think, they actually like Hartcliffe because it is actually a great place to live – my own recollections are probably rose-tinted and helped by the fact that by the time I grew up local amenities (but not decent public transport) had finally been added to the estate. Sure, there were always a small minority of individuals who caused disruption – but my memories are of a happy childhood despite the lack of money. At least, unlike many of those living in inner city areas, we had easy access to the open countryside and the streets weren’t chock-full of commuters in their cars and the resulting fumes.

Talking to other members of my family, instead of seeing money spent on homes in Ashton Vale they can’t afford, they would like to see money spent on homes in Hartcliffe, Inn’s Court, Hengrove Park, etc that they have a better chance of being able to afford, and if they cannot afford to buy they would like to have a choice of options to rent (whether that be from the council, housing associations, or reputable private landlords like Unite). They don’t want to be forced to rely on private cars or public transport to travel across the city to Avonmouth or Stoke Gifford for work – they want to be able to travel to work in South Bristol. They don’t want dual carriageways built through their streets so that people can speed through – they want transportation designed for them to use – that is, the local community.

I have no doubt that if the new development goes ahead in Ashton Vale, very few people on the housing list will find themselves moving much further up that list. I hold some slight hope that, having been failed consistently by the system for the last 90 years, my family will not have the 20 year wait that Joseph IV and Joseph III had before getting a decent home they can enjoy. Unfortunately, I fear that this hope is very slight and that the only people who will benefit will be shareholders in those companies investing in property development and a few lucky souls who can afford to buy themselves up the ladder.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tony, great post - a fascinating insight into history at the same time as a very interesting personal story. Thank-you

    History parallels history, but wouldn't it be wonderful if we could learn just a little bit from it?

    As usual the anti-greens are just trying red herrings and crocodile tears with this line about so-called "nimbyism". The anti-environment brigade by and large don't give a toss about the poor or the working class unless they think they can use them to further their own agenda.

    They are keen to brush aside the fact that a major cause of housing problems is the million or so properties that stand empty, wasting away. But guess what? Bringing them into use won't make profit the way slinging up a load of rabbit hutches on greenfield sites does.