Walterton and Elgin Community Homes: Jonathan Rosenberg

Margaret Thatcher introduced Tenants’ Choice to privatise public housing. She could never have imagined how one group of residents would turn the policy on its head to bring their homes into community ownership. Now, 25 years since Jonathan Rosenberg led Walterton and Elgin Community Homes to success, these pioneering Londoners are about to break ground on a £17 million scheme to build another 43 affordable homes.

What do you do?
My name is Jonathan Rosenberg and I’m the founder and chair of Walterton and Elgin Community Homes. I’m also the community organiser for West Kensington and Gibbs Green Community Land Trust.

What’s the point of the organisation?
The original point of the Walterton and Elgin campaign was to save the estates from being knocked down and sold off to a developer. But as the campaign developed and people became disenchanted with Westminster Council and the way it was behaving, the opportunity came to transfer the estates away from the council. Once you’ve had your landlord do something really nasty to you you only really trust yourself.

So we set ourselves up as a landlord to take advantage of the right to acquire legislation, called Tenants’ Choice, that came into force in 1989. We got registered with the Housing Corporation as an approved landlord under that legislation and later as a registered housing association. We went through the process, had a ballot, won it and the transfer occurred in 1992.

When did you decide to get involved?
I started it off. Back in 1985, six months before the campaign started, I was getting concerned about the condition of the property I lived in. It was not self contained, it was falling to bits, conditions that you wouldn’t have believed existed in the 1980s.

It was originally Greater London Council property. The Greater London Council did various works and tried to break the whole thing up and tackle bits of it, but it was beyond their resources so some of it ended up in this bad way. The Greater London Council passed it over to Westminster when it got rid of all its housing in 1980. Then suddenly one day, in September 1985, I got a call from a councillor who said, “I’ve just got the housing committee papers and in five days time there’s a report on Walterton and Elgin, item 20, to knock down and sell off the estates.

The machine was churning out page after page of prime real estate and it was just so funny because we were like, bloody hell, we’re going to serve this legal notice forcing them to hand it all over with the money. 

So I went out and ran round the estates like a lunatic for five days. I organised a petition and three coaches and we went down to the committee meeting. Westminster council had never seen anything like it before, they were shocked. It descended into chaos, the police were called and the campaign started from there.

After getting diverted into the gerrymandering scandal, the Council got back on our case in 1988 and tried to get the developers in. We went round singing songs at them and filming them and frightening them off. We struck deals with developers who agreed to keep out, especially Regalian, who built the MI6 building. They agreed that if there wasn’t resident support, they wouldn’t get involved.

When Thatcher got in for her third term she stood on the balcony of Conservative Central Office and said, “Next step, I’m going to demunicipalise council housing.” The consequence was Tenants’ Choice, which we used to completely outmanoeuvre the council, and which led to ultimate victory.

What’s your proudest moment?
The funniest moment was when I sat with a person who helped me a lot during that period in 1989, in the early days of computers. He’d just got a computer. We sat down and filled in the form for our Tenants’ Choice application, which included listing every address, which was up to 1,000 addresses. We got to the point where we’d prepared it all and had to print it out.

Read more about Tenants’ Choice at Inside Housing

The machine was churning out page after page of prime real estate and it was just so funny because we were like, bloody hell, we’re going to serve this legal notice forcing them to hand it all over with the money. We ended up in fits of laughter at the absurdity of it all.

What’s the hardest?
The hardest moment was after we served that notice, the council decided to try to stop us by putting homeless families with newborn children into the asbestos ridden housing blocks.

These were the worst asbestos ridden blocks in the country. After that decision I went with some asbestos experts to inspect a number of the flats that were fire damaged. We weren’t properly protected and the conditions inside the flats were like scenes out of hell. They were unbelievable. They weren’t lived in. They were giving out large amount of asbestos fibres and we knew that these homeless families with newborn children were being poisoned. I got very upset.

We did end up sorting it out. We did technical tests and got front page lead in the Daily Mirror. The whole saga was later investigated and the investigator said it was the worst act ever committed by a local authority. The Council thought that if they filled up the tower blocks that were part of the application with homeless families that would screw us up. They were completely wrong because since the homeless families were moved in after the “relevant date” they could not become our responsibility.

Putting those families in had no impact at all. Essentially these families and their children were used a canon fodder in what the investigator described as a war against our communities. They were used as pawns and they didn’t even serve the purpose. Not only were they immorally exposed to asbestos, but needlessly.

What keeps you going when things get hard?
The justice of the cause was always what kept it going. The objective of a community winning control and owership over their land and their future. I studied the english revolution of 1649 and I was a fan of Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers, I was inspired by that. I was also riled by the intellectual dishonesty of the council and also, I really don’t like it when rich and powerful people bully the poor. I don’t think it’s on, and someone has to stand up and get in the way.

What’s next?
We’ve been in ownership since 1992. The next step is to undertake a major scheme to build an additional 43 homes for rent. The details are yet to be finalised.

These will be at the London Affordable Rent, which is an extrordinary achievement in its own right: no sales, no intermediate rents. There is an argument that says there’s no need to do it, it’s compeltey unnecessary, it puts the organisation into debt, invests money from existing tenants and intensifies part of the estate.

It does deliver more than new homes, it delivers lifts for older tenants, we get a new office, a new community centre and a new under-fives centre. The organisation has to continually focus on the community and on ensuring that we can maximise community involvement.

How did you vote in the EU referendum and why?
I voted remain, because the consequences of leaving the EU just seem to be too damaging to me. Economically and otherwise.

How will the result affect your organisation?
In terms of WECH, the referendum is quite interesting because David Cameron and the last Tory Government were vindictive against social housing in a rather extreme way, much more so than Tories previously.

Because of the referendum result he and his ilk have gone and the attitude to housing has reverted to a fuzzier and less vindictive approach, so that’s good. Also at the same time the Government is so consumed by Brexit that it’s not able to concentrate on anything else. That can be regarded as a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you want to do. In the West Kensington example, decisions aren’t getting made.

People going into this are going to be in it for the very long haul

What does community mean to you?
It’s the people around me who live under the community landlord who share a common interest and a common experience and a common ambition for the future.

What would you say to someone looking to do something similar?
Good luck. You must have the persistence to achieve your goal. If you pursue it long enough at some point, those in authority may deliberately or more likely accidentally go your way.

The government said they were going to empower private landlords to take over council estates and if it hadn’t have been for that we wouldn’t have been saved. Likewise it’s government intervention in Scotland that has allowed communities to take control of their land.

That’s what you need because the system is stacked against people achieving this and they can only achieve it with some dispensation, usually a legal one, because usually you’re not allowed to take land into community ownership unless there some legal provision for it. So people going into this are going to be in it for the very long haul. You may or may not get there, but as long as you keep fighting you’re in with a chance.

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