When Labour councils resisted Tory housing policy

Submitted by SJW on 14 March, 2018 - 1:19 Author: Rosalind Robson
Clay Cross

Rosalind Robson continues with the story of the 1972 resistance to the Housing Finance Act by Clay Cross council in Derbyshire. Read Part One here

That the Labour council of the small Derbyshire town of Clay Cross fought a Tory government over its policy of raising rents by an act of Parliament — the 1972 Housing Finance Act — is well known.

What is less well known is that Clay Cross was not the only council or set of councillors to initially opposed the Act. In fact hundreds of Labour councillors initially refused to implement the Act. Eventually all but a few, including eleven Clay Cross councillors, gave in, partly because of the intervention of the Labour leadership, partly out of fear of punishment by the state, and partly because the opposition was not co-ordinated.

A later instalment will also tell a lesser known story of how many tenants refused to pay raised rents, often in opposition to Labour councillors who had implemented the Act.

In July 1971 Ted Heath’s Tory government introduced a White Paper, A Fair Deal for Housing. The intention was to raise the rents of both local authority and private tenants by setting high so-called “fair rents”. Labour Weekly later leaked the Housing Ministry’s estimate of fair rents. The figure for the East Midlands area in which Clay Cross falls, was £5.14p per week. The rents in Clay Cross then averaged £1.50.

Those who could not afford the “fair rent” would be eligible for means-tested rebates. The idea was that better off tenants would subsidise the rent of less well-off tenants and also ensure the state could save money on housing benefits.

This was in fact an attack on better off working-class people, and Labour’s electoral base. At the time Labour was very strongly represented in local councils. Also, apart from in places like Clay Cross, rents had been creeping up.

In Clay Cross soon after the publication of the White Paper a series of public meetings were held to discuss the proposals, inviting the view of both private and council tenants. There had a been a tradition of holding such meetings, to allow for public consultation on the council’s business.

A letter was written to the Tory Housing Minister Julian Amery telling him that the council would refuse to operate the policy. At this stage, it seemed that there were many other councils set on a course of defiance and it was unlikely that the Government would attempt action against them.

But the government did have a potential escalating programme of punitive measures at its disposal.

Firstly, the Secretary of State for the Environment could initiate a formal enquiry into the conduct of a local council.
Secondly, the a notice that a council would be issued with a default notice and the council then had one month to prepare a defence.

Thirdly, a default notice was issued which might or might not be accompanied with a public enquiry.

Finally a variety of sanctions could be imposed, including the council being taken over by a Housing Commissioner, a withdrawal of subsidies for housing programmes, personal financial penalties on councillors (to recoup the loss in rent receipts). In extreme cases the councillors could be compelled to obey the law on pain of being found in contempt of court (and then jailed).

It is worth saying that these penalties, particularly the ones that can be imposed on individual councillors, are less punitive today than in 1972.

Councillors can still be disqualified, but it is much harder; and they can no longer be jailed or heavily fined and bankrupted.
Early in 1972 Clay Cross was getting some national attention — it was one of two councils to feature in TV programmes about the legislation. The councillors upped the ante on this fight by calling the Act an “abattoir for the slaughter of council house tenants.”

On 10 June 1972 233 councillors from 87 groups of Labour councillors met in Sheffield to co-ordinate opposition to the Act. A Working Party was set up. Unfortunately this Working Party came under pressure from the Labour leadership (Labour was led by Harold Wilson at the time) and wound up merely proposing a deputation to the Tory Prime Minister. There was no campaign for non-implementation, despite a lot of uncoordinated feeling in favour of non-implementation.

At the 1972 Labour conference, later in the year, vague support was given to the campaign against the now passed Act, and the National Executive Committee was instructed to back up any councillors that defaulted on implementing the Act. Many Labour-controlled local authorities dodged the confrontation by part-raising rents, but by so doing that had set in train the mechanics of the legislation.

In the end there were three groups of councils that refused to implement to one degree or another.
Those who never implemented were Clay Cross and Bedwas and Machen in south Wales (although this council co-operated with the Housing Commissioner running it’s housing from December 1972).

A large group of around a dozen councils, many in Scotland, held out until sometime into 1973.
32 others held out between October 1972 and January 1973. Of those, Camden, Merthyr and Clydebank had state intervention applied.

• Next issue: the fight heats up in Clay Cross

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