The Origins and History of the Co-Operative 1972-1990
During the early 1970s, Southwark Council, the owners of 67-81 Balfour Street, a terrace of eight three-storey late nineteenth-century houses houses, was not carrying out any maintenance on the properties with a view to their demolition.
In 1975, two of the tenants who had lived there for over twelve years proposed to Southwark Housing Department to set up a self-managed housing co-operative which would restore, maintain and run the houses. The project would be set up with a starting loan from the council, which would be repaid (with interest) in lieu of rent. After much negotiation the initial capital was channeled through Wandle Housing Association (and later in 1982 with Solon South-East Housing Association) with a repayment period of ten years.
In the summer of 1976, while negotiations continued, the two original tenants, joined by friends, started work on the rehabilitate of three empty properties, numbers 71, 75 and 81 Balfour Street. In those early days there was a great deal of physical labour needed to restore the houses; building skills were learnt and shared together with outside expert help for the more technical work. For about three years work weekends were scheduled, with some members preparing food and others looking after the children. Monthly meetings were held on a Sunday evening. By July 1979 the properties had been renovated to the stage where responsibility for maintenance reverted to the individual tenants.
The criteria for membership of BSHP during this period was housing need and that the members should live or work in Southwark. The emphasis was also on childcare: creating a supportive environment for children and their parents, where other adults could also be closely involved with children if they so wished.
Interest in local and co-operative activities led in various directions. Co-op members tended to belong to local CND and Labour Party or other left and green groups; and the co-op sometimes participated (through delegates) in local bodies such as Pensioners’ Forum, Teenage Information Link, the Community Health Council, Southwark Irish Forum, or the campaign against a Walworth route for the Channel Tunnel train. BHSP also provided a space for collective and community activities. In the most dilapidated house when we took over, 67, for years not fully habitable, we knocked out interior walls and made a large ground-floor room for meetings, rehearsals, jumble sales etc. Over the year it has been hired at a small fee by, for instance, local branches of the Labour Party, the Green Party, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Connolly Association, Trade Union, Friends of the Earth and CND; and by local tenant groups, the Victory Park committee, a group of exiled Chilean musicians and dancers, a South London music group, and History Workshop Journal editors. Before renovation, other rooms in 67 were used variously for carpentry, a wholefood co-op, a weaving workshop, the office of a community newspaper (Walworth in Print), the South London Chile Solidarity Campaign, storage for jumble sales, etc. We also ran a room for children to use, where sometimes a club met regularly during the winter.
Early in 1977 we discussed ways to improve the local environment. Trees along the terrace were planted by the Council at our request. Victory Community Park was also first envisaged at this point, and after preliminary enquiries and lobbying we called a public meeting about open space in the neighbourhood (3 Oct, 1978). This initiated a public campaign and much hard work (lobbying, planning etc.), in which we took our share. It was opened in the summer of 1980, and named after the adjacent Victory Place (of Napoleonic Wars origin) and Victory School. It was run by a local management committee, on which BSHP was always represented.
When the empty block north of the terrace was demolished, the council agreed to our request to use it. They cleared and fenced it and put down topsoil, and eventually (summer 1980) we were able to turn it into a garden.
Relations with our umbrella body, Wandle Housing Association, never good, deteriorated in 1980-81, and we approached Solon South East HA on the possibility of a transfer. We were anxious about the long-term future of our houses and of the co-op (the end of the original 10 years being in sight), and aware that extensive and costly roof repairs were needed. We also were interested in the future of 85 Balfour Street (then known as Sandringham Buildings) whose tenants had almost all gone. Solon offered help on all these fronts. We transferred to them in January 1983, and started collecting our own rents as of 1 August 1982. Solon helped us negotiate grants and contracts and supervised the complete renewal of our roofs (late 1982). They then negotiated with Southwark Council to buy our houses, which seemed the only way to secure our future as a co-op; and worked with us on the best way to renovate 85, which they had also bought, and integrate its eight one-person units (occupied from August 1983) into the co-op. Solon also did the financial and architectural groundwork for the major rehab (1984-8) of the terrace houses, which finally brought 67 into full use.
After the renovations were complete in 1988, we filled all the properties; wrote job descriptions for officers and sub-groups and streamlined our procedures; composed policy statements on children and equal opportunities; revised procedures for collecting rent and dealing with arrears; discussed and revised each section of the handbook; and began work on revising the tenancy agreement in the light of changes in housing law.