Rosalind Robson begins a two-part article on the 1972 struggle over council house rents in the Derbyshire town of Clay Cross.
Clay Cross Labour council’s defiance in the face of a Tory government which wanted to increase council house rents, and the council’s determination to keep rents low, is a landmark event in British labour movement history and deserves to be better known.
In that struggle, one set of councillors was dismissed and surcharged, as a Tory-appointed Housing Commissioner, sent to collect the higher rents. Because the Labour Party in Clay Cross was politically prepared and had a clear strategy, a second set of Labour councillors refused to co-operate with the Commissioner. For two years the council held out and the rents stayed low. What is the background to these events?
For most of its history, up to the early 1970s, Clay Cross was a mining town and largely run by the mining company, the Clay Cross Company. The town was a key location for transporting coal from the Midlands and the north to London by rail.
While the Clay Cross Company profited from the expanding coal industry in the nineteenth century, there was desperate poverty in the town. The Company built back-to-back terraces for its workforce and these soon became slums.
By 1919, some of the worst slums had been demolished but they were had only been replaced by inadequate homes. For example a municipal scheme of 1800 houses was built but only 130 had baths and only 500 had toilets. Despite subsequent small municipal housing schemes, much substandard housing remained at the start of the 1960s.
Trade unionism began to be built from the 1860s but there was relatively little industrial militancy until the 1950s. At that time the Labour Party was very small. According to the historical account by Clay Cross councillor David Skinner and journalist Julia Langdon, it was nationalisation of the coal industry in 1948 which broke the “company town” culture. By the late 1950s, Dennis Skinner, then a miner and activist in the National Union of Miners (NUM), together with another NUM member, Bill Lander, and others, were working to revitalise the local Labour Party and win control of the council. They organised street canvassing, public meetings and political education.
Dennis Skinner explains the strategy:
“The council as a unit was strong because it had developed its policies as an expression of the will of the people it served. It knew those policies were right because of the growing political awareness in the town, because it was clear that people had learned to care what happened there, because — unlike in many local authority areas — between 65 and 75 per cent of them bothered to turn out and vote whenever there were elections.”
In short political canvassing was linked to socialist policies which in turn strengthened the Labour Party.
In 1960 Dennis Skinner was elected to the Clay Cross Urban District Council. Three years later Clay Cross had a 100% Labour council, winning it from Independents. From 1959 until 1974 (when it was abolished), the Labour Party won every seat it contested on the council.
Social conditions in Clay Cross at this time were very bad. By the end of the 60s all 14 pits within a five-mile radius of the town had been shut down. In April 1968 unemployment in Clay Cross was nearly six per cent and by the end of the year had risen to 9%. In April 1971 it was 15%. Many young people had left the town and with its ageing population came more burdens for the local council. The council responded to social needs of the elderly by providing sheltered accommodation and free bus passes and free TV licenses for pensioners. It responded to other social needs as well, for instance it set up a social centre with holiday playgroups for children, they continued to provide free school milk after it was abolished by the Tory government in 1971. The council was prepared to fiddle budgets and explore legal loopholes to make these kinds of provisions.
At the heart of their programme was getting rid of the old Clay Cross Company slum housing and replacing it with new council homes.
By 1970 the council had pulled down 551 houses. The programme cost a lot of money as it involved buying the slums from the Clay Cross Company, purchasing land, and building new homes. The council chose not to, as was usual, take out expensive government loans. Instead they used money collected through general rates (the local tax which is now known as council tax). Rents on the new homes were set at 25 shillings a week, the second lowest in the country and no more than that being paid by tenants of the Clay Cross Company. Again, rents were kept low by using rate money to subsidise them. Clay Cross Council was “bending the rules” in the full expectation that they should and would live with any likely consequences.
The council asked for financial help from the Labour government which was in power before 1970, but were knocked back.
The Labour group on the council, in the main, understood that they were serving the interests of their constituents (a largely poor, and increasingly unemployed, mining community). The councillors also reported to, and made themselves accountable to, monthly meetings of members of the local Labour Party. From the start councillors also understood that if they were not prepared to stick to the democratically-decided majority policies of the group they were expected to resign.
Inevitably, as the housing programme advanced pressure mounted on the council. Two Labour councillors, Bill Blowen and Derek Mart, buckled under the pressure and tried to get the Labour group to increase council house rents. Their aim was to ease the growing deficit in the housing revenue account deficit, a deficit which would be noticed by and frowned upon by other, national, state authorities. But the rent increases they wanted included a £1 a week increased on old age pensioners’ bungalows. When Blowen and Mart failed to win support they resigned from the council.
At the beginning of 1967 the Town Clerk (a senior council official) recommended increasing rents, to deal with the deficit. A Residents Association was set up to oppose the council policy by a local businessman who recruited people on the private housing estate where he lived. He managed to get, so he claimed, 1,500 ratepayers signed up to his group, as well as the support of councillors Blowen and Mart.
In 1969 when the District Auditor found the housing revenue account had a £30,000 deficit he ordered the council to balance the books immediately. Rents were then raised by 4 shillings a week; not good but the raise was the first in five years. The average council house rent was then 32 shillings including rates and it remained at that level for the next five years. In the next year when the council officials pushed further rent increases the council refused.
With pressure mounting a third Labour councillor broke ranks. Henry Houseley was purely worried for himself. At a meeting of the Labour group he said:
“When the District Auditor recommends a rent increase you’ve got to do something about it. I was not prepared to take the risk of being surcharged [i.e. fined for allowing the council to run up a deficit] and mortgaging my home, I am sure the ratepayers of Clay Cross would not expect us to stand a surcharge.”
But in the municipal elections of 1969 the council’s mandate was endorsed and the Labour swept the board.
In May 1970 the Ministry of Housing wrote to the council saying they should do what the District Auditor told them to do or face the threat of legal action.
In the autumn of 1969 the District Auditor, Charles Lacey, began an investigation into whether or not the Residents Association’s claim that a transfer of £24,671 from the general rate fund to the housing account was unreasonable and excessive was true.
In the event, the District Auditor found in favour of the council and did not uphold the Residents Association complaints. Perhaps Lacey had been impressed, or intimidated, by the groundswell of local support given to the council at the elections.
One of the councillor’s, Graham Smith defended the policy in this way: “[in a situation of high unemployment] to rehouse people... from low rented property into new property at economic rent would place intolerable burdens on them.”
Most mainstream councillors today would not dare to defy government authority or even their own Chief Executive. They would not bend the rules. They would regard any attempts to do so, even the mildest ones as revolutionary as being far out of step with “public opinion”. That perception is the result of decades of failed class struggles and diminished horizons.
Yet for Clay Cross councillors their actions were not revolutionary. It was a simple matter of democracy. Dennis Skinner told Lacey: “A local authority having got its mandate must stick to it. If were are surcharged on this matter we are being deprived of carrying out our promises. We are being told that pledges we have made cannot be carried out.”
One councillor told a newspaper: “Ask the people of Clay Cross if we’re rebels, they’ll tell you what we really are: we’re not politicians, we’re not economists; we’re honest ordinary people who represent other honest ordinary people who have a voice in society and have made it heard through the democratic process.”
This was the council that would go on to lock horns with the Tory government over its housing policy.
The Story of Clay Cross, by David Skinner and Julia Langdon
‘The Struggle Against the Tory Housing Finance Act’, by Leslie Sklair, Socialist Register, 1975.