Walterton and Elgin Community homes (WECH) is a successful resident controlled housing association in Westminster. It emerged from the struggle of residents against the sale of their homes to private developers. It is now a beacon of how resident control can not only revitalise the physical environment of run down estates but also create sustainable and inclusive communities from the bottom up.
The important lesson that WECH has learned is that the increased participation of residents in determining the delivery of services is essential to the provision of high quality and responsive services. WECH is fully committed to working in an inclusive way to try to respond to the expressed wishes of our residents wherever possible.
We believe that by working in partnership with our residents and other stakeholders in our community we have been able to improve the quality of our homes, the quality of the lives of our residents and have contributed to an improvement in the overall quality of the environment in which are homes exist.
In 1953 the London County Council (the LCC) purchased the Walterton estate, built between 1865 and 1885, from the Church Commissioners. During the 1950’s, private landlords, including the infamous Rachman, bought up tail ends of leases due to expire in 1964, the LCC inherited a rundown, overcrowded estate where many homes lacked basic amenities.
During the 1960’s the Greater London Council built tower blocks and low-rise blocks on the Elgin Estate. In the early 1970’s the sheer volume of derelict homes gave rise to the high-profile Elgin Avenue squatting campaign, involving such figures as punk legend Joe Strummer of the Clash. More than half of the homes on Walterton were demolished during this time with the remainder of around 360 houses being “reconditioned” to a fifteen-year life.
The Campaign – 1985-92
In 1980 ownership of the area transferred from the Greater London Council to Westminster City Council. The GLC was committed under the terms of the transfer to funding major repairs and improvements on the estates. After the Thatcher government had legislated to abolish the GLC on 1 April 1986, the GLC nevertheless offered to honour its commitment by ‘deathbed’ funding to the transferee local authorities, and shortly before it was abolished, transferred £42m. to authorities which took up the offer. However, the City Council declined the GLC’s offer, and in 1985 decided to sell off the estates to private developers – without consulting, or even informing, residents.
Residents responded by forming the Walterton and Elgin Action Group (WEAG), organising protests, petitions and their own plan to save the homes of local people in need of rented housing.
In 1987 the Council proposed a barter deal with developers which would involve the disposal on a large number of homes in the private market. In response to this, residents organised and attended coach trips to the Council’s and developers’ offices to demonstrate against the proposal. This attracted coverage in the media, and support from local community groups and housing professionals.
To achieve its policy, the Council had decided not to relet any flats which became vacant. By the middle of 1988 one third of Walterton Estate homes were empty and blocked with steel doors and Hermes and Chantry Points were heavily squatted.
In 1988 WEAG decided to use of the new Tenants’ Choice provision of the 1988 Housing Act (designed to encourage the sale of council housing to private landlords) to transfer ownership of the estates to the community. The Group approached Paddington Churches Housing Association (PCHA) for advice and were encouraged following consultations with the Housing Corporation to form WECH.
Three quarters of residents signed up as members of WECH and a committee with a majority of residents was formed. After a lengthy and sometimes difficult campaign, 72% of residents voted to transfer to WECH in an 82% turnout.
In April 1992 the residents of Walterton and Elgin estates took over ownership and control of 921 homes. The homes had suffered years of neglect, so that Westminster Council had to pay a ‘dowry’ as part of the conditions of transfer.
Between 1993 and 1997 Westminster Council paid over £22 million to WECH. WECH implemented a high-quality building and refurbishment programme in which resident participation in the design and the fitting of new homes was central. Meetings were arranged to discuss and finalise the scope of work with residents. The architects explained the options for different design layouts, an overall design brief was prepared for the dozen different house types on the estates and each design could be modified to suit the needs of the individual. WECH insisted on a high quality of materials, fittings and finishes.
In 1994 the Council commissioned John Barratt to investigate the use of the tower blocks on the Elgin Estate, Hermes and Chantry Points, between 1982 and 1991. His report was published in March 1996 and stated that the residents of Hermes and Chantry Points had been at risk from the asbestos in the towers. In August 1990 the Council finally accepted the Points were not safe and moved the residents out. In 199? WECH demolished the two tower blocks and replaced them with low-rise, asbestos-free housing in Campaign and Rodborough Courts.
WECH’s achievements were made in the context of controversies surrounding the Council, including the auditor’s report into the ‘designated sales’ policy and a further report over treatment of tenants in asbestos-ridden tower blocks.
Despite turbulent relations with the local authority before 1992, WECH has since worked closely with Westminster Council.