David Orr calls for revival of ‘community activism’ to influence housing

NHF chief salutes the spirit that set up one of London’s smallest housing associations.

Into his home strait of his time as NHF chief, David Orr turned back the clock to call for renewed community activism influencing the sector.

Speaking at the premiere of a documentary on one of London’s smallest housing associations, Orr called for a revival of the spirit that inspired Barnsbury HA’s founders.

Orr said: “When I was at primary school 50 years ago, there were 55 million people in the UK, and our national disgrace was 60,000 children living in temporary accommodation – we now have 66 million people and 120,000 children in temporary accommodation.

“We have simply not built enough homes, all of us can do something about that disgraceful fact – what kind of impact would Barnsbury HA’s founders have if they were to start up today?”

Barnsbury HA was set up 50 years ago by Islington residents angry at the then Greater London Council’s plans to demolish a terrace of semi-derelict Georgian houses to make way for tower blocks.

Barnsbury HA chair, David Baker, then a newly elected GLC councillor, was one of the leading protesters.

“There was growing concern that GLC and borough housing programmes were creating social problems, ‘building barracks for the workers’ as one of our committee members put it,” Baker recalled.

The protests saved the terrace, with the GLC even lending the new housing association a mortgage that paid for the site and the conversion of the 12 houses into 30 flats for rent.

Orr’s talk was followed by a question and answer session with a panel of some of the earliest and, in the case of one caretaker, still serving staff.

Geoff Lewis, one of the first tenant reps and later, for 31 years, Barnsbury HA’s manager, said his father had said he couldn’t understand ‘why anyone would want to live in a khazi like Islington’.

The panel recalled escalating complaints about children kicking balls or riding bikes on the then new Morland Mews estate during the very hot summer of 1976.

Committee members and tenant reps were still trying to raise funds to convert a bombsite at one end of the estate into football pitch.

But the children took matters into their own hands.

Chief executive Susan French quoted from a petition sent into News of the Mews, a newsletter produced by the Barnsbury HA tenants association.

It read: “We, the children of BHA, are fed up with all the complaints being made against us… we are not a load of hooligans yet, but we will be if we are pushed too far by tenants on this estate.”

A follow-up announcement in News of the Mews, by ‘the kids’, notes they have formed their own committee, giving the names of their chairman and joint secretaries, and helpfully adding: “If you have any suggestions or complaints you would like to reach the kids directly, please feel free to contact them through their elected officers.”

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