The Story of the Walterton and Elgin Estates in Paddington

Introduction

In the 1840s Dr Southwood Smith had carried out his experiment of building some clean, well drained and healthy flats in King’s Cross. He compared the child deaths with undrained houses in Notting Hill and proved that good housing saved lives. From then, decade after decade, there has been the unending battle to house people with low incomes in healthy housing. The story has gone through many phases. Then Mrs Thatcher declared that ‘there was no such thing as Society.’

She was reproved by, of all people, the Duke of Westminster. He had on one of his estates, blocks of flats built by Lutyens for working class tenants. He, probably the richest landowner in the country, said there was such a thing as Society.

Lady Porter, then head of Westminster City Council, decided to use working class housing, not to improve the living conditions of low income people, but to Gerrymander an Election.

This is the story of the battle for the votes of a Ward in Paddington,.where flats were left empty, their entrances sealed with iron doors and people moved out of the voting district, to reduce the Labour vote.

 

Partial Control of the Estates Passes to the City of Westminster.

In London, some properties had always been built by the London County Council and some by the Boroughs. As part of its conflict with the GLC, the Conservative government decided to pass the day-to-day running of all local authority houses to the boroughs, so in 1980 the ownership and management of the Walterton and Elgin Estates, in Paddington, were transferred to Westminster Council. However, the Greater London Council (successor to the London County Council)) retained the responsibility for major works.

In 1983, the Greater London Council architect Hilary Chambers began a survey of properties on the Walterton Estate. He found that living conditions were very poor and estimated that repairing and modernising the estate would cost more than £21 million. The Greater London Council drew up plans for full scale rehabilitation.

"When I first surveyed the Walterton Estate I was appalled by the scale of the bad conditions. It wasn't just a few people. It was right across the estate."

The Discovery of Asbestos

Part of this work was the installation of entry phones in two tower blocks, Hermes and Chantry Points, to give greater security to the tenants. During this work sprayed asbestos was discovered. Asbestos, which had been used freely by architects in the 1960s, was recognised by then as a major health risk and the scheme had to be aborted. No new tenancies were granted. Instead, Westminster licensed the flats on a temporary basis to Westminster Short Life Housing. This was a registered co-op of young individuals who obtained short- term use on license terminated at one month's notice. There was still an intense shortage of housing in London and a number of the emptied flats became squatted. The management of the blocks steadily deteriorated until they were out of control.

 

 

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Exposed sprayed asbestos above the lift door at Hermes Point in April 1989, at a time when the flats were still occupied.

 

Westminster Plans to Sell the Estate

In 1986, with the GLC set for abolition, responsibility for major works as well as daily maintenance passed to Westminster Council. In great secrecy, without any warning to the residents, the Council drew up a scheme to sell the estates to private developers. The developers planned to demolish the Walterton Estate and rebuild at twice the density. About 350 houses, let as about 900 units, would become 1800, while one of the Elgin towers would become an hotel.

The Campaign to Save the Estate

The news of the Council's plans to sell off the estates leaked out and residents responded swiftly by forming the Walterton and Elgin Action Group (WEAL). With just five days notice, more than 200 tenants attended a meeting of the Council Housing Committee in Seymour Hall to demand that the Council withdrew its plans. The Council responded by claiming it wanted to "create a new community" on the estate.

Residents insisted that they were the community, so their needs and wishes should take priority. They drew up their own plan to save the homes for local people in need of rented housing. They collected petitions signed by over 1,100 people in support of their campaign. Every Housing Committee for three years was lobbied by residents, sometimes well over 100 strong. Despite this the Council persisted with ever more complex schemes.

 

 

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A demonstration against the Council plans

The Council accused the Action Group of being politically motivated and yet at the same time the Council itself had a second, hidden agenda - to win the 1990 Borough Council elections by manipulating the electorate. The City would sell the estates to a private developer. He would build for sale and so change the local voting patterns. The new properties would bring in people with enough money to buy, instead of rent, and who would be more likely to vote Conservative. This policy was carried out particularly in marginal wards. The ruling group on the Council never admitted to this policy, talking instead of 'Building Stable Communities'.

At the same time too, as a second method of developing its policy of getting rid of hostile voters, Westminster City Council was removing many of its (++PUBLIC PROTEST) homeless people to cheaper accommodation outside the borough; to Hounslow, Barking and outside London altogether. the Walterton and Elgin Action Group vigorously opposed the "exporting of Westminster homeless families to outer London and beyond."

The Council's method was to board up empty homes and sell them. The policy was known as 'designated sales'. With a housing shortage and people clamouring for anywhere to live, these security doors were an affront to common sense, causing intense anger among local people, but the Council persisted.

Years later, in December 1997, the High Court found the process to be unlawful. Dame Shirley Porter and her deputy David Weeks were ordered to pay back £27 million which was lost in rents as a result of their wilful misconduct. This was reversed on appeal and the counter appeal will be decided by the House of Lords in Autumn 2001.

 

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' £5O A Week-Tory Waste' The estate was full of these blocked up doors.

 

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We are a little worried about our landlord

 

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The view from Westway

 

Rory McLeod is a one-man-soul-band, poet and story teller. He has traveled widely and describes himself as a musical gypsy. In 1985 he returned to London and needed somewhere to live. He went to Westminster Short Life for help.

"They told me there was this flat in Hermes Point. Another couple had turned it down because it had cockroaches. I took it. I remember walking round the flat singing and playing guitar and baptising it with music, leaning out of the window enjoying all that light that came in. All kinds of friends eventually moved into the blocks. I was part of the community at last."

"I found out about the council tenant's struggle against the Council and wanted to get involved. I found the most militant folks in WEAG were the old folks. But painting the signs on the tower roofs was definitely a job for the younger ones. We took a ladder, paint rollers, brushes and stencils. I was nervous. It took us all night. At 5 am, tired, we drove up onto Westway to check our handiwork. Was it legible? Was it big enough? It was far better than we could ever have hoped for! We creased up laughing - proud of a job well done. For miles, all along the M40 you could read the words:"

NOT FOR SALE.

"I remember Lady Porter and the Tories embarrassed at Council meetings by the popular support against them. I'll never forget the bus trips to the developers with flasks of tea and sandwiches. We realised how strong we could be as a community and that politics starts at home with your neighbours on your street. The trouble with being poor is that ii takes up most of your time."

The Campaign to Save the Estate

The news of the Council's plans to sell off the estates leaked out and residents responded swiftly by forming the Walterton and Elgin Action Group (WEAG) This brief account of the battle of the tenants to control their homes.is based, by permission, on the book 'Against the Odds', by Jonathan Rosenberg, who played a major part in the whole campaign.'

++ Work needed

FOOTNOTE

The book contains far more detail about the residents, the day to day progress of the campaign, the demolition of the

To rehabilitation of the properties. towers an(

 

Private Developer Keep Out

From 1987 the Council tried to interest developers in a "barter deal" on the Walterton and Elgin estates, whereby they received half of the properties to sell on the open market in exchange for doing up the other half for council tenants. They hired consultants to organise the deal. It was costed at £65 million and would have involved forcing everyone to move.

The tenants responded with surprise visits to the offices of the Council and the developers. The Action Group organised coach trips, for which the older people in particular turned out in force. They were joined by short-life residents, local doctors and church leaders. The whole community supported the campaign and it attracted extensive media coverage. People prominent in the housing world also gave WEAG outspoken support.

The Private Developers

Regalian Properties PLC is a development company which spearheaded the 1980s drive towards the privatisation of council estates with its conversion of Wandsworth tower blocks for owner occupation. In 1987. Westminster Council invited Regalian to "express an interest" in a proposed barter deal for the Walterton and Elgin Estates.

Lee Goldstone, who was Managing Director, said: "The Council hadn't made us aware of any local opposition, so you can imagine our surprise when the Walterton and Elgin Action Group turned up at our offices. We were taken aback to suddenly find 25 or 30 people, guitars, film cameras and all. Having been sung to by this amicable group it was resolved that a meeting would be held.

"Regalian prides itself on its responsibility and knowing when to walk away. We believe that we have to take into account the views of the community when considering an opportunity. Once it was established that the Action Group represented the views of the majority in the area we withdrew publicly and the rest is successful history. I think this experience encouraged us even further towards dialogue with community groups."

By the end of 1988 organised opposition from the residents had reduced the number of developers interested in the PMI 'barter' to one.

"In 1986 the Council tried to sell some Walterton houses to two local housing associations. We had a meeting with the Action Group and agreed not to get involved without the support of the residents. I remember saying 'Keep in touch'. When the Action Group came back they were definitely the underdog."

"There was great hostility in Westminster Council, but we genuinely felt that people were living in some of the worst housing conditions in the wealthiest part of the country and if there was a chance of fulfilling these objectives of improving their housing, we wanted to be part of it."

By the middle of 1988 the Council's policies had taken their toll on the estates. One third of the Walterton Estate was empty and blocked up with steel doors. Hermes and Chantry Points were heavily squatted and out of control. The future of the estates looked bleak Residents would need to turn the tables on the Council if they were to have any hope at all of saving their homes.

The Breakthrough - Taking Over their Homes

Unexpectedly the tenants found what they were looking for in a piece of legislation introduced by the Thatcher Government. The 'Tenants Choice' provision in the 1988 Housing Act was intended to encourage the sale of council housing to private landlords. However, there was a clause which said that prospective buyers had to seek approval from the Housing Corporation and, through a ballot from the tenants.

The Action Group approached Paddington Churches Housing Association (PCHA) for advice and were encouraged, after consultations with the Housing Corporation, to form Walterton and Elgin Community Homes (WECH). This could then apply for 'approved landlord' status and claim the right to acquire the estates from Westminster Council in April 1989, when 'Tenants' Choice' came into effect. PCHA agreed to act as WECH's agents in running the estates should WECH succeed. A committee was elected which was controlled by residents and included professionals in housing finance and management.

WECH signed up three quarters of the residents as members and in March 1989 became the first landlord to be approved by the Housing Corporation under 'Tenants' Choice and the first to lodge an application to take over Council property.

"When WECH went for Tenants' Choice there was gossip that the then Secretary of State, Nicholas Ridley, said, "This was not supposed to happen!". It was very much a triumph over adversity by ordinary people who wanted to live in decent homes." Malcolm Levi, PCHA. Ben Wilson, Director of Operations. PCHA, said: "PCHA brought experience in running housing, and resources to match WECH's commitment and determination. Our involvement reinforced PCHA's founding ideal of responsibility to local communities. Personally I found it very exciting. It was what I came into housing for."

Dirty Tricks

As soon as it heard of WECH's plans the Council made every effort to try to stop them. Publicly it claimed it was neutral about WECH and in favour of Tenants' Choice. However, an unpublished investigation by Westminster Council revealed:

"It is clear that there was a difference between the ostensible support offered to 'Residents' Choice' as a Majority Party and Council policy and what, in practice, was a continuation of the war with WEAG/WECH by Councilors assisted by others who were members of the Majority Party (the Conservatives). ---"People holding formal office in, and exercising de facto control of the Council's organisation, appear to have been involved as well as some of their political associates."

The Panorama Programme on Gerrymandering
and the Asbestos Scandal

John Ware made a Panorama programme which reported on the allegations of gerrymandering by Westminster Council and the asbestos scandal on Elgin Estate.

"I knew nothing of Lady Porter in 1989 but she struck me as interesting. WECH invited Panorama to do some filming in the tower blocks. I remember coming out of the lift and being rooted to the spot with shock at the chunks of flaking asbestos. It was inconceivable that anyone could argue that it was safe. The crew was so horrified that they refused to stay and film and we had to come back another time. I don't remember a crew refusing to film on health and safety grounds and I've been in some pretty hazardous situations.

The Council was using the area as a dumping ground for people they wanted to keep out of the marginal wards. The general public have no idea of the scale of what went on. They know Lady Porter sold houses illegally, but not that virtually every other council service was subverted to win the 1990 elections."

The Independent noted:-

"Tory councilors in Westminster are said to have housed 150 families in tower blocks with a known asbestos problem --- The current Tory leadership --- turn out to be [those] whose policies for housing the homeless were labelled as culpable and surchargeable by the District Auditor."

Tony Blair, then Leader of the Opposition, asked Prime minister John Major, to condemn "what any reasonable person would condemn". He declined to do so, saying that Westminster Council had not been found guilty in a court of law.

The Estate Evaluation Dispute

Despite all the Council's efforts to halt the process, WECH stood firm and maintained the momentum. On 7 April 1989 a coach load of residents delivered WECH's application to acquire the estates to the Council's Solicitor.

At first the Council argued that WECH should pay them almost £1 million for the properties. WECH maintained that, because of the poor condition of the estates, the price should be negative and the Council should pay it £63 million to rehabilitate the estate. A protracted dispute began which was referred to the District Valuer for resolution.

The central issue was how much it would cost WECH to repair the estates. Geoff Fisher was the District Valuer employed by the Inland Revenue to assess the value of the estates and the amount of money which Westminster should pay to WECH for outstanding repairs. It was a massive job, inspecting dozens of flats and listening to hours of legal argument by QCs. In July 1991 he finally announced his decision.

WECH could have the properties free of charge and the Council would have to pay £77.5 million as a dowry to cover the cost of disrepair. The District Valuer said more than twice as much as this was required to fully rehabilitate the properties, but this was the maximum that could be awarded under the law as it stood. WECH and PCHA then negotiated with the Housing Corporation for an extra £3.5 million in exchange for housing 70 households nominated by the Council once the properties were modernised.

During this period WECH intensified its contact with residents by visiting them in their homes. Meetings were organised to explain what was going on and listen to residents' concerns. High profile media coverage kept the estates in public view. In September 1991 WECH published a manifesto for residents. Residents could finally vote on whether to transfer to WECH or stay with the Council. Some 82 % of the residents voted, of which 72% were in favour of the transfer to WECH. The properties were finally transferred in April 1992.

The Council exercised its right to pay the dowry in five annual installments, adding interest of about £4.5 million to the total. Now the work began in earnest.

The Rehabilitation

Architect Hilary Chambers is a senior partner in Chambers Goodwin and Partners. He began his career in the 1960s by working in housing for several London Councils. In 1984 he was engaged by the GLC on the Walterton Estate and had produced the report recommending full scale rehabilitation mention­ed earlier. The Action Group approached him for help in 1986 and later WECH formally engaged his firm to advise on the take-over bid. After take-over Hilary led on the refurbishment of Walterton properties.

"This is easily the most important project I have been involved with and has helped so many people. What has been remarkable is that everyone has been able to make choices that suit them. I have personally dealt with every single resident who has been re-housed I would never have believed how highly responsible and reasonable people could be. There is no doubt that people's involvement has been a major incentive in looking after their property and continuing to make improvements. They are paying rent to their own association and they feel they own it. I hope WECH can instill that feeling in the new tenants who move in."

Resident Participation

During 1992 WECH began an extensive process of consultation for the planned works on the Walterton Estate. Meetings of residents discussed the general scope of the works and arrangements for moving people. They stressed the importance of good heating, storage space and security. An overall design brief was prepared for the estate and standard conversions developed for the dozen different house types. These designs could be modified to suit individual needs and wishes.

Everything was done to meet as many of the residents' preferences as possible and to preserve the fabric of the community. People who had previously bought their homes under the 'Right to Buy' legislation could swap their old one for a new one nearby on the estate, providing they were like for like. Housing officers asked residents whether they wanted to move, while the senior architect visited residents individually to discuss the options. In some cases residents proposed alterations which worked better than the original design or were less costly.

 

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Demolishing a tower

 

 

Taking Down the Tower Blocks and Rebuilding

A Damning Report

In August 1994 the Council's Chief Executive commissioned John Barratt to investigate Westminster's management of the Points between 1982 and 1991. His 642 page report was published in March 1996. It documented how it was only thanks to an intense campaign by WECH, which attracted national media coverage, that in August 1990 the Council finally accepted the Points were not safe and moved the residents out.

"The homeless families, newcomers to the Points, were given no information or advice about the asbestos materials for at least several months despite internal concern that information should be given. When information was given, the assurance of safety was extravagant. (Report para 7.167).

Commenting on the Barratt report the Daily Mail said,

"The way these tenants were treated under this `flagship Conservative council' reads, by any standards, like a towering disgrace."

The Construction of the Tower Blocks

In an attempt to overcome a shortage of labour, Hermes and Chantry Points had been constructed in 1968 by a consortium, led by the GLC and including a fibre glass manufacturer and a steel company. The blocks were 22 storeys high and had 101 flats in each This ground breaking prototype employed a steel frame construction.

Each panel was made up of chipboard sandwiched between asbestos cement. The steel columns at the back were coated with sprayed asbestos. To provide fire protection the frame was coated in sprayed asbestos and asbestos was used extensively for the internal construction of the flats. Hermes and Chantry Points contained over 20 miles of deadly sprayed asbestos and huge quantities of asbestos cement. The sprayed asbestos was boxed in by asbestos board and was not airtight. The heating system operated by circulating air around the flats in the duct work, so that asbestos fibres circulated around people's homes.

Only two other blocks of the same type were ever built - at Watney Market in Wapping East London. After a successful fight by local residents one of these blocks was demolished in 1993, while the other was stripped back to the steel frame and concrete floors and then cladded with brick.

WECH inherited Chantry and Hermes Points in a totally empty condition. The cost of asbestos removal and the renewal of all internal walls, external cladding, lifts, fixtures and fittings, and the high management costs, would have made the blocks too expensive to run. The residents agreed that the tower blocks should go. Demolition was expensive as it had to be done under negative pressure so that the dangerous asbestos fibres were contained and not scattered. Workers in 'space suits' with breathing apparatus had to remove the asbestos panels and strip the sprayed asbestos from the steel joists. With the asbestos cleared, the steel structure was removed by crane, floor by floor, and low-rise blocks with pitched roofs built in their place.

Restoring the Low–rise Flats

The low-rise blocks built in the 1960s had been built with flat roofs which were cheaper at the time but meant that, after a few years, the roofs leaked. These flats were given pitched roofs and the flats were thoroughly overhauled.

The Auditor's Report

In May 1996, the District Auditor published his final report in which he named three Councilors and three senior council officer guilty of wilful misconduct and liable for a surcharge of £31.6 million. Lady Porter appealed to the High Court against this decision. In December 1997, the High Court concluded that Porter had "lied to us as she lied to the District Auditor". The number of people who would have to pay the surcharge was reduced to Porter and her deputy, David Weeks.

Porter decided to take her case on to the Court of Appeal. To universal surprise she won her case in 1999. However, the District Auditor decided to appeal to the House of Lords.

On 13 December 2001, five Law Lords unanimously upheld the appeal by the Auditor, ordering Porter to pay the surcharge which now stood at around £40 million because of interest. They expressed their judgement in the strongest language available: "This was a deliberate, blatant and dishonest use of public power. There was an abuse of power . . . not for the purpose of financial gain but that of electoral advantage; in that sense it was corrupt."

Eventually Porter paid just over £12 million in full and final payment.

The Future

Despite all the past disagreements between WECH and Westminster, officers of the two organisations have worked together to improve the housing situation in the area. In 1997 Westminster City Council identified the refurbishment of the remaining Walterton houses as a high priority in their housing investment strategy. In partnership with the Council WECH has developed a scheme which will provide 169 new homes for rent over a ten year period, while Notting Hill Home Ownership will refurbish at least another 20 homes.

All the agitation of the previous thirty years has led to a far more stable and constructive situation on the estate, with much more resident participation than ever before After the years of Rachmanism, building decay, 'Homes for Votes', and the asbestos scandal, older residents feel that they have lived through a long, arduous war and are now determined to control the peace.

 

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THE SECOND REBUILDING OF AREA A

Hermes and Chantry Points have been demolished, the old low-rise blocks

214 given pitched roofs and extra blocks built on the old tower sites.

 

Footnote: In the 1950s Rachman had bought up the tail leases of the houses in the area. The houses, which had been built perhaps 90 years before, were coming to the end of their leases, so they were very cheap. He filled the rooms with tenants and extorted high rents by gangster methods. His name became a byword for rapacious greed.

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Revised: January 7, 2013 11:51 AM