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International Socialism, Winter 1965/66


Constance Lever

Planning and Democracy – St Marylebone


From International Socialism, No.23, Winter 1965/66, pp.9-15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


1. The democracy of protest

Because of the absence of institutions or powers enabling the working class to intervene collectively and creatively in society, it is only in the guise of objection and protest that workers stir and organise. If the objection is a fragmented one, it may well go no further. If it is linked to a more general criticism, it may in time generate the concept of an alternative. The institutions and law of town planning enforce a general ignorance and apathy arising from powerlessness. Provision is not made for any collective and creative intervention from below, but only for individual objection where property rights are obstructed by centralised administrative decisions. Nor are the efforts of these bureaucrats to plan, without mass support in an anarchic society, any more related to human needs or any more efficient in their own terms here than in other spheres. The initiative of planning authorities is blocked by numerous factors. The costs of compensation severely limit their means, demolition does not in law require planning permission and so planning authorities are barred from making any comparison between the desirability of an existing use or structure and a projected one, and cannot object to the misuse of building resources to replace fit rather than unfit structures; some of the most important considerations, such as the probable level of rent of a new development, are not considered to be legitimate planning considerations, and if a council refused permission for luxury flats on these grounds, their decision would be reversed if the developer appealed; one of the greatest nuisances to any authority is the vast number of appeals from owners that they have to fight at great length before any plan can be accepted or carried out. In this state of friction between state and private capitalism, planners sometimes think hopefully of rallying the public behind them by using public relations techniques.

‘Few people realise what is being done in their name or how much more could be achieved with their interest and support.’ (Colin Buchanan.)

In this they have had very little success so far. This article describes the origins and development of the Marylebone tenants’ movement of several thousand members which has fought a number of wholly or partially successful struggles, starting with rates, and leading on to the question of rents and to the creation of the Campaign for Marylebone Homes, which demands the use of surplus railway land to initiate a redevelopment by the Council of the decaying working-class areas of Marylebone. The Campaign grew out of a series of protest movements, and far from creating a smooth passage for the local authority, soon came into headlong collision with it.

2. Marylebone

Marylebone is a complex area of London. It includes the shops of Oxford Street and the decrepit areas devoted to the rag trade at their rear, spacious housing and some of the first luxury flats in London and also pockets of terrible slums (some without electricity or water), together with the solidly working-class areas of the Church Street-Bell Street ward. It contains Regents Park and also Marylebone Station and Goods Yard (45 acres in all) and two of London’s oldest power stations. (During the great fog of 1962 the highest concentration of sulphur dioxide in London was measured in Lisson Grove.) The two-class nature of the area is shown in the 1961 census – of the 110 enumeration districts in the Borough, a majority of the population of 36 consists of manual workers, a majority of 27 is in the professional-managerial-employer categories of the Registrar General, while only 6 contain a majority of clerical and middle-class workers (i.e., in 74 out of 110 districts, manual workers are in a minority). Two kinds of encroachment have been going on for a long time. First there are commercial developments – railways in the 19th century and offices more recently – which have reduced the amount of housing and pushed up the price of land. Then there is demolition of older working-class housing to be replaced by expensive blocks of flats. Marylebone is the only Metropolitan Borough Council to have built fewer houses since 1945 than private owners have. Only the Church Street-Bell Street ward remains, in class, largely intact, and is an entirely safe Labour ward in a Borough composed otherwise of entirely safe Tory wards. The total picture is of a general decline in population (from 104,000 in 1921 to 69,000 in 1961), producing a certain defensive consciousness in most residents; and of a changing class structure with certain working-class areas being steadily whittled away. The result is something approaching a siege mentality in the pockets still left, and in the remaining Church Street fortress.

Marylebone Council (like the Westminster Council which has succeeded it) was securely controlled by the Tories. It operated a system of differential rents so that some of the older estates made a profit. The local Communist Party was totally opposed to the differential system and the local Labour Party, although it gave qualified approval to the general principle, was opposed to its mode of operation and considered that the rents were far too high. Both parties agreed that it was operated in such a way that the Council’s housing received no subsidy from the rates. The Council also kept two separate waiting lists, one for higher and one for lower rented housing. (This latter was subject to the differential system.) The higher rent list was open to all who applied (including some who merely worked in the Borough). The ordinary list was closed a few years ago, after being cut in half.

The changes in Marylebone had been going on for a long time. The solution to the housing problems of the workers in the Borough would require more than the preservation of a status quo such as many middle-class preservation societies and pressure groups demand. To make the imaginative leap to the concept of a rebuilt and reshaped Marylebone was difficult – even more difficult was to gain the confidence and organisation to set in motion and maintain a movement to such an end.

3. The rate increase

It was against this general background that the issue of rates exploded to provide the motive force behind what is now probably one of the largest and most militant tenants’ movements in the country. In March 1963, a 28 per cent increase in rates was announced at the town hall – only three people were in the public gallery. The Tory leader of the Council blamed the extravagance of the ‘socialist’ LCC for the rise. But it was not the increase itself which produced the reaction. The increase was based on the reassessment of rateable values carried out throughout the country. The rateable value of domestic property in the Borough had risen from 21 per cent of the total to 26 per cent. The total rate levied increased by 28 per cent, but the increase from domestic properties amounted to 51 per cent. Most striking of all, this 50 per cent increase had not been distributed according to any apparent principle of consistency and it had a clear class bias. Similar properties, even adjacent flats in the same block, were rated differently. Council flats increased by more than the average and tenement blocks by even more. The revaluation was based on a hypothetical market value which ignored the actual level of council rents or the existence of rent control, reflecting only the ‘desirability’ of the area. For Council tenants the average increase in the amount to be paid was 90 per cent. In some tenements increases averaged 250 per cent, 200 per cent and 160 per cent. Instances of individual hardship multiplied, of people paying as much as a fifth of their income in rates, of people paying several pounds a week for houses without baths and with outdoor lavatories, of individual increases in rateable value of 1,500 or 1,700 per cent. On the other hand cases were cited, such as the 110 luxury flats at Eyre Court, where it was claimed rates had actually been reduced.

On 27 March, 20 housewives from Ranston Street, pushing prams and carrying a petition signed by 39 householders in the street, staged a protest demonstration at the town hall. Their rates had gone up by an average of 17 shillings a week. Individual queries and protests were pouring into the town hall. Four days later the residents of a block of 12 council flats on Lisson Grove met and decided to set up a tenants’ association and to appeal. The report of this received wide publicity in the local paper. On 16 April three meetings were held –100 people attended the Miles and Bowmans tenants’ meeting and set up an association; of the 271 tenants in these Buildings, 260 joined it. 600 people attended a meeting called by the Lisson Grove and Church Street local Council tenants, and a meeting of Barrow Hill Council Estate tenants was attended by 80 people who elected a committee. The following week a joint protest signed by the leaders of four associations was sent to the town clerk. When the Council met again, 500 people gathered outside. Police barred the way, so they held a meeting on the steps, addressed by, amongst others, the prospective Parliamentary Labour candidate. The leader of the Council declared that it was all the fault of Communists stirring up trouble, but 10 Conservative councillors abstained on an amendment by their party to a Labour resolution calling for a government enquiry into the revaluation. The Labour Party now took some action as well and called a protest meeting, but they underestimated the feeling and many had to be turned away from the small hall for lack of room. By now the local Liberal party and the local press joined in the denunciation of the revaluation as ‘grossly inequitable.’ Over a few hours 1,000 signatures were collected on a protest petition. A month later, when the Council met again, tenants could no longer be kept out. Their deputation was received and crowds packed the public gallery while news was relayed out to more crowds outside. The Tories conceded and declared that they were sending a deputation to see the Minister. In the same month, a Liaison Committee of the four associations was set up. Its policy included a demand for the suspension of the Marylebone revaluation, and ultimately for a progressive local income tax to replace the regressive rate system. The Liaison Committee in temporary association with the Residents’ and Ratepayers’ Association and the National Association of Tenants and Residents held a public meeting at the end of July. The leader of the Council felt it necessary to attend, but according to the local paper was completely shouted down by the audience. A fifth association was formed in St John’s Wood. Rates dominated the by-election campaign in November and December when Quintin Hogg was returned with a substantially smaller majority than his predecessor (who had been elevated to The Other Place to make way for him). In December over 8,000 appeal were still pending, the valuation officer had admitted that the system was ‘crazy ... without fairness or worth’ and the town hall had no idea what half the assessments actually were. In March 1964 it was reported that the number of summonses against defaulters had trebled over previous years.

The victories won were considerable, and it was noticeable that those areas which had organised associations were those which obtained some of the greatest reductions. Already in May 1963 it had been announced that 1,371 council flats, rating assessments were down by an average of £20 following unofficial negotiations between the Borough Council and the Valuation Officer. Many, unsatisfied with this 15 per cent reduction, proceeded with their appeals and some obtained further cuts. Miles and Bowmans tenement blocks tenants won reductions of 80 per cent in October.

4. The Tenants’ Associations

All but one of the five associations and also the Liaison Committee formed at that time are flourishing today. Another four associations have since been formed, impelled by various issues, often with the help of the Liaison Committee (to which they have all affiliated), and the current paid-up membership is over 2,000. Few issues could have had the same effect, and it was one which arose with such intensity in very few boroughs indeed. The revaluation acted as a catalyst for long-standing grievances. It came suddenly and violently, and even apart from the extreme cases, it hit thousands hard. It gave an impression of striking and manifest arbitrariness and injustice. It united Council and private tenants, and for a time the shift of rate burden away from offices provided a basis for common action with wealthier residents in other parts of the Borough (though the class bias never ceased to be apparent). Authority was divided and disarmed – they came round to acknowledging the wrong, but not the need for a drastic remedy such as a suspension of the revaluation. Revaluation opened up channels for both individual and organised protest. The machinery of appeal was used until it was overwhelmed. At the same time general and informal negotiations took place, where the Valuation Officer often conceded errors over whole blocks. The weapons of political protest were brought into play, and individuals were directly involved (over a long time) through the process of appeal. Here too the associations helped, providing encouragement and comparative information. Tangible and substantial victories were won, yet these did not wholly satisfy demands or eliminate the sense of injustice – they provided a spur for more. The revaluation appeared to people as a mystery requiring explanation, and attempts to find cause and logic were heeded. There were political people around (both Labour and Communist), active in the associations and willing to provide such an explanation. ‘It is plain that many ratepayers are getting off lightly. Who are they?’ asked a letter in the local paper. The replies came in: ‘The income from office blocks has gone down by 10 per cent.’ ‘It has become evident that there exists an intention to eradicate the wrong side of the tracks.’ ‘Could Rachmanism be tied up with the new rating valuations?’ ‘The basis is the rental valuation under conditions of supposed free negotiations. This as we know reflects the iron laws of supply and demand.’ The terrible condition of much of the Borough’s housing was widely publicised in the course of the appeals. Thus offices, the Rent Act, the encroachment of the wealthy, depopulation, slum conditions and regressive taxation cohered into a general picture. The powerful and victorious associations, already jointly associated and enjoying the confidence of their members, expressed this picture.

Once established, the movement grew. In the summer of 1963 the Railways Board sold its (majority) shares in Wharncliffe Gardens tenements to a private company. The tenants, many of them railway workers, formed an association, and pressed the Council to take over the property. This the Council did in December, and the association (now with a membership of 400) became increasingly concerned at the possibility of having the Council’s differential rent policy imposed on them. The Council declared that their intention had been to prevent the tenants being driven out by high rents, and the Labour leader added, ‘I personally have no reason to doubt the good faith of the Conservatives on this matter.’ The Communist Party however distributed a leaflet in the flats accusing the council of paying above market value for the flats with the intention of recouping it by raising rents on controlled premises (which private owners could not have done). Within a year the Council had done just this by imposing its differential scheme and increasing substantially the total revenue from the flats.

London County Council (LCC) tenants in this area, threatened by ultimate takeover by the new Westminster City Council (under the local government reorganisation), formed the sixth association at this time, to resist the threat of differential rents.

The seventh association was the Railway Property Tenants’ Association, set up some seven months after the Wharncliffe Association, in March 1964, in the area of narrow streets behind Marylebone Station. Houses here were being boarded up whenever they were vacated and rumours (since substantiated) were rife that the railways were hoping to sell the site to a private property company for redevelopment together with the Goods Yard (now acknowledged to be surplus to requirements).

On the initiative of the local branch of the National Union of Railwaymen, the association was set up. It too affiliated to the Liaison Committee, representatives of which attended the inaugural meeting. They determined to fight for Council purchase and for rehousing in Marylebone. ‘If past practice is anything to go by,’ one said, ‘the real intention of the Beeching set-up is to sell these properties to speculators who will then proceed to squeeze out all railway tenants to clear the way for the building of luxury offices and de-luxe flats for the rich.’ The last association is only a few months old, set up by the Liaison Committee in February 1965 amongst private tenants in East Marylebone, largely to combat the still-existing Rachman practices and high rents . All these associations (with the partial exception of one in St John’s Wood) are overwhelmingly made up of manual workers (often railwaymen), and so are their committees. These latter have quite a high proportion of Labour and Communist Party activists on them, but most of their activity is in the tenants’ movement and they have strong local roots, being mostly known personally to members of the associations (who have often lived for years or generations in this close-knit area).

5. The Railway Land

The railway tenants had been worried about the sale of their houses to developers together with the Goods Yard surplus land, and the fate of this surplus land was very much in the public eye at this time. There were 30 acres in the Goods Yard and Coal Yard which had been lying unused or grossly underused since the war, right in the midst of the working-class part of the Borough. The Council had been asking every few years that this should be re-zoned for housing, but the Railways always insisted that they were about to find a use for it. A local vicar (who became a member of the Railway Property Tenants’ Association) had been agitating for years in his parish magazine about the misuse of this land. As employers, landlords and land hoarders the Railways were regarded locally with great suspicion.

In November 1963 the Railways Board submitted lists of their surplus land in London to the LCC. Parts of it had been earmarked for housing and parts for offices and commercial development. The two authorities now bogged down into a long deadlock, with the LCC trying hard to reduce the proportion for offices – an argument which was only resolved by the Labour government. 20 acres of the Marylebone Goods Yard were on this list, zoned for housing, and the local Council expressed the intention of bidding for it. But The Observer noted at this time that ‘some councils have been alarmed to discover that some of the housing land, very often the best sites, is already the subject of negotiations between British Railways and private builders who are planning luxury flats.’ This was certainly the case with the Marylebone land at that time. A year later Keith Joseph, the Minister, admitted, ‘It is true, about a year ago, some private developers were interested;’ and through 1964 plans were being prepared for City and County Properties Ltd by a firm of architects.

Thus in late 1963 development on this land became a potential reality, and at the same time it became apparent that there was a danger of a private sale or lease of it. Before the Railway Board’s lists were made public there had been the by-election. At this Joseph, questioned by one of the members of the Liaison Committee, promised that all surplus land in Marylebone would be used for housing. He still left a hint of ambiguity, and gave no details as to the timing of release, but it was a useful lever for anyone who cared to use it. The Liaison Committee decided to take this matter up seriously. The rates campaign had now settled into a certain routine. The by-election was over. They issued a number of statements, and approached an architect to assess the situation.

‘In view of the fact that British Railways seemed to be preparing to clear the housing in Harewood Avenue, and bearing in mind past schemes which had been put forward for redevelopment, with shops and offices right down to Marylebone Road, the Committee agreed that what was needed was not just a plan for 10 or 20 acres such as had been discussed with varying urgency on the Council, but that they should be concerned with the general lines for replanning the whole railway area, including the coal yard for open space, replanning the canal area and the site of the two power stations, which were due for demolition. They would get a comprehensive redevelopment of the Church Street-Bell Street area, enabling those living in the old tenements such as Miles and Bowmans, and eventually Wharncliffe Gardens, to be rehoused locally while their sites were used for further building. It was stressed that the tenants’ plan was not to duplicate the work of the housing department, but to open the eyes of a large number of people to the immediate and practical possibility of halting the depopulation of the Borough, of housing all those on the waiting list and many more, and of transforming the amenities of the whole working-class part of the Borough’ (Minutes of the meeting).

Other matters took up the attention of the Committee for a while (the Wharncliffe rents, the formation of the Railway Tenants’ Association), but in July 1964 they called a public inaugural meeting to launch the campaign properly. 100 people packed the small hall. The vicar, Dr Bolt, spoke of his eight-year battle with British Railways over the land. Landon Temple, secretary of the Liaison Committee (and a Communist candidate for the council), spoke of housing conditions in the area, of the atrocious record of the Council and the need to press for every inch of the land to be used for low rented council housing. Peter Plouviez, the prospective Labour candidate, and councillor Jean Merriton (representing the Labour group) pledged support. Dr Bolt said that the Conservative Chairman of the Planning Committee had promised his backing. Jim Prendergast, union official at Marylebone Station, promised support of the North West Council of the NUR. A campaign committee was elected consisting of all members of the Liaison Committee and 12 others who expressed a willingness to go on it. (Seven of these later became attending members.)

The first days of the Campaign were golden with success and applause on all sides. A letter was sent to all councillors asking for support. A petition was printed, addressed to Keith Joseph, asking that none of the land be sold privately, that it be used for low rented council homes, that no more offices be built. Signatures were collected from stalls in Church Street Market and by circulation amongst their members by the tenants’ associations. The final total collected was 6,000. The associations, the deputy mayor and several Conservative councillors donated money; the Church Street Traders’ Association promised support. The Bishop of London visited the area and was photographed. The local NUR branch and the local Trades Council both affiliated, and the latter decided to send a resolution to the National Conference of Trades Councils, calling for transfer of all surplus railway land to Councils without further charge. The Housing Committee considered the campaign’s letter, and its chairman replied:

‘The Committee is in full sympathy ... and they regard the publicity which your campaign has received as an adjunct to the steps which St Marylebone Council have taken over many years ...’

They promised too to look into the question of the power-station sites. Through September preparations were being made for the second public meeting, to be held on 6 October. Invitations were sent to the three parliamentary candidates, 9,000 leaflets were distributed and 430 posters displayed. Not a week passed without the activities of the campaign forming at least one of the main news stories in the Marylebone Mercury. The question of the railway land became thoroughly entangled with the general election campaign. All three candidates declared their support for the Campaign’s aims. Quintin Hogg took up their enquiries with the Housing Minister and British Railways, and he flourished the replies as his trump card at his adoption meeting. Keith Joseph wrote:

‘About a year ago some private developers were interested. This was before I had made my views known to the Board, who assure me that in view of what I have said they have no intention of trying to do a deal with commercial developers ... I have made it clear to the Railways Board that every piece of surplus land they have which is suitable for housing should be offered for housing – and for local authority housing at that.’

The Board wrote,

‘It is anticipated that the whole of the area will be surplus to railway requirements towards the end of 1965.’

Somewhat to the surprise of the Campaign Committee, Hogg’s pledge appeared to have strengthened public support for the Campaign. Some 250 people packed their second public meeting on 6 October. Dr Bolt read out the correspondence which Hogg had received and forwarded to them with a message of support. The Labour and Liberal candidates repeated the pledge from the platform. The audience listened silently and attentively to the long and somewhat repetitive speeches, whose keynote was the need to remain suspicious and keep up the pressure. As usual at Campaign public meetings there was very little time allowed for questions and discussion from the floor, but out of what there was emerged a new and startling disclosure, which blew away much of the Tory smokescreen of universal assent. A railway tenant from an unorganised part of St John’s Wood read a letter which she and her neighbours in 18 houses at Marlborough Hill had received in July from the Board:

‘Dear Madam, I have to advise you that plans have been prepared to redevelop the above block and these will necessitate the termination of your tenancy/lease in due course. A definite date cannot yet be given, but when the legal formalities have been completed you may expect to hear from the development company, A.T. Chown and Co Ltd. This proposal is in accordance with the Railway Board’s policy of maximising revenue from its properties and you will appreciate that this particular site has very valuable potential. No doubt you will wish to seek alternative accommodation, but I regret that I am unable to assist in this matter.’

Hogg had replied to an appeal by one of these tenants, saying,

‘So long as the developments contemplated are for housing and not offices, and that reasonable consideration is shown to tenants, I do not think we in the Government can hold up developments of this kind.’

So much for election promises on the use of railway land for council housing!

6. Further Developments

With the election over, new steps were initiated. A town planning student and an architectural student set about preparing plans for redevelopment of the whole area, to be presented by the Campaign in a public exhibition. Letters were sent to the Labour Housing Minister and the Chairman of the new Greater London Council (GLC) Planning Committee asking for interviews, in order to present the petition and to discuss the questions of date of release, price to be paid (and thence rents later) and of their preference for a GLC over a new Westminster Council development.

The deputations were received, and after some telephoning back and forth to Ministry officials, an agreed press statement was issued:

‘The GLC informed the Committee of the Campaign that they were in active negotiations for the acquisition of the site. They expected to acquire some fifteen acres by the end of 1965 and a further ten by the end of 1966. While they were proposing to cooperate with the New Westminster City Council, the GLC would buy the land and no firm decision had had been made as to which council would build. The deputation stressed that the GLC would build better and more quickly and that the tenants would prefer the GLC as landlord provided that sufficient places were given to local people ... Mrs. Denington (for the GLC) gave a pledge that on no account would they permit any private office or luxury development on this land but exclusively low rented homes and necessary amenities ... The Minister said he would bring all possible pressure to bear to get the project under way ... The deputation strongly contested the dates for release ... He undertook to see if these could be reviewed ... While there was a case for the GLC to build in this instance in Marylebone, the question of which authority would ultimately develop and control the site would be a matter for subsequent discussion ...’ (It was this sentence which had caused the trouble and this was a compromise.) ‘He added that all suitable railway land in London would have to be ceded for housing.’

The change in Government had brought a number of shifts in policy. Keith Joseph had stated that he wished all railway surplus land to be used for housing, even municipal housing. But the criterion of railway profitability made this merely words. The ban on office building altered the situation, and in February two Government spokesmen made headlines with announcements about hundreds of acres to be released for housing. This situation was earlier announced to the Campaign’s deputations. The Committee was and is very suspicious. The Railways bureaucracy might try to delay matters, by revising their definition of operational need, while waiting for a change of government, or policy. A railway yard in neighbouring Paddington was withdrawn suddenly from the surplus lists, when Paddington Council had already prepared plans for it. The original Marylebone dates had been changed. (In April they were changed again, delaying the release of 11 acres until the end of 1967.) There was also a brief that negotiations over price were causing delay. (At present – September 1965 – they are still unconcluded.) But on the whole the danger of offices and private housing receded into the background. The questions of timing and cost gained some prominence, but the centre of propaganda emphasis now tended to shift to matters which would have to be settled after purchase by the GLC, namely: which Council would develop the site and whence were the people housed there to come?

The Marylebone Council’s differential rents, and above all their double housing list, both likely to be inherited by the new Westminster Council, made it a Campaign aim to press for GLC development of the site. On the other hand, the GLC had dropped a bomb into their midst, by saying to the deputation that they should remember that it had to consider the needs of all London. Railway sites were rare and precious. Other areas were in greater need. Education and open space would take up space. It was not expected that very many Marylebone people would be rehoused there. As they came down the steps of County Hall one member of the deputation said, ‘We can’t go back to our members and tell them that the houses will be built, but that they won’t live in them. We could never ask them to sign a petition or join an organisation again.’ Yet local chauvinism would play straight into Tory Westminster’s hands, something which Labour and Communist activists would have found abhorrent even if the question of rents had not come into it. The roots of the Committee were solid and local. There was a genuine movement behind them, which most of them really believed to be valuable in itself. To their credit it must be said that the temptation to subordinate the interests of their members to a political battle between rival bureaucracies never took hold of them. They worked out a new position (involving a change of emphasis rather than of policy). This was crystallised in the new preeminence of the two slogans: ‘Every inch at low rents’ (posed as a challenge to Westminster) and ‘Block by block clearance’ (posed essentially as a challenge to the GLC). They worked out a demand for 65 per cent Marylebone tenancies, these to be the first step in a total plan to clear one substandard block after another, so that ultimately everyone could be rehoused and another 6,000 people from outside housed as well. The technical plans in preparation for the exhibition, which took the whole of the Church Street-Bell Street ward (180 acres) and showed how this could be done, now gained a political significance, as well as being just general futuristic propaganda. Other questions of detail, such as the density of persons per acre and the amount of open space to be provided, now became matters of Campaign policy, not just technical questions to be left to their experts. (If they were to achieve the full clearance while accepting some outsiders, then the first had to be bumped up or the second reduced.) They wrote to the GLC pressing these demands, and to the Government, emphasising their support for the GLC.

The question soon burst dramatically into the open. On 22 January a banner headline in the local paper screamed out:


The next week there was another:


A display of hypocrisy and local chauvinism rare even amongst their kind was now assumed by the Tory councillors and Quintin Hogg:

’I hope the Campaign for Marylebone Homes will realise how misguided they were to look to the GLC ... By their actions, local people who have a right to the land will be kept out ...’

Multitudes of tears for ‘our homeless’ were shed, and a minor Red scare was started against the Campaign. They wondered how Labour Councillors and Campaign committee members dared face their supporters.

The local Labour Party called apologetically for reason and moderation. The Campaign responded with a flood of press statements, letters to the press and 10,000 leaflets distributed in the area. They first pointed out that Marylebone Council would cease to exist by April, and that Westminster would have responsibilities to Paddington too. Any scheme must accept ‘outsiders.’ They violently attacked Marylebone Council’s record, and the Tory record nationally. They challenged them to pledge, as the GLC had done, that all their housing would be low rented. And they stressed their own demands for a high proportion of Marylebone tenancies and for the land to be used as a first step in a comprehensive redevelopment of the entire area. They held a third public meeting at which the tables were decisively turned. They had invited the new Westminster Tory group (majority) to send a spokesman, and the Vice Chairman of the council came; he was not a Marylebone Councillor, and had not followed the story closely.

‘On all the important issues regarding these sites no one disagrees,’ he said. ‘I have gathered from the local press that there are some very minor difficulties ... There is always the need to have a mixed community ... I would hate to live in a one-class area ... There are many who can’t afford high rents but who don’t want low rented accommodation. They want a chance to find something for a medium price, and there is a great shortage of these, as there is of low rented flats.’

This time the main headline in the local paper was rather different:


The story cannot be drawn to a close. All the issues raised are still hanging. Delays continue, and the Board prevaricates. The GLC have just denied a rumour that £8 millions is being asked for the site, but admit that negotiations are proceeding on the basis of market values for housing land. Yet this is already public land which has been paid for once. The questions of which Council, which tenants, which rents, all remain. The Campaign has started a second petition on some of these points. They have held one showing of their exhibition, visited by some 1,500 people (mainly local) and are about to hold a second. More interviews (with the Minister of Transport and the new Chairman of the Railways Board) are being sought, and statements and letters still provide a good proportion of the news in the local paper.

7. Conclusions

The tenants’ movement and the Campaign are undoubtedly mass-based movements (the first to a much greater degree than the second) but (especially with the Campaign) the amount of really active participation has been limited – only a couple of dozen people being really active in the Campaign. Their contact with the mass of their supporters was mainly educational. The members of the associations followed the story in the local papers. They were interested, asked questions, read the leaflets. Some came to the public meetings and listened attentively and approvingly to the platform. Thousands signed the petition – but that is a simple action. The tenants’ committees received regular reports – but it seems that discussions on matters of policy did not take place, their delegates on the Campaign Committee were not usually instructed on what views to express or support. Yet the clear impression is obtained that the Campaign was articulating the strongly and consciously felt needs and desires of people in the area. There may have been little discussion at the public meetings (there would have been more if time had been allowed) but there was stormy applause and many private conversations after. The lack of policy discussions in the associations by and large reflected the absence of disagreements and the confidence felt in the Campaign.

Yet in one sense the Campaign is more interesting than the original tenants’ movement on which it was based, and without whose strength it could never have come into being. It is to the best of my knowledge unique as a working-class movement agitating for a large-scale planning solution to their problems. In general it is rare in non-revolutionary periods for a workers’ protest movement to develop its fight against, and lack of confidence in, the authorities that be, to the extent of preparing its own solution. Of course, rightly, it did not detach itself from the protest and the struggle. The plans prepared and the demands put forward were never intended to do the authorities’ job for them, but rather to put pressure on them, embarrass them and mobilise people behind this pressure by showing them graphically what could be done. The actual schemes were prepared by ‘experts,’ though in accordance with broad (and sometimes quite detailed) policy decisions of the Committee. Yet a groping towards the realisation of the possibility and need for workers’ control over planning was made here.

The question remains – how did such a movement become possible, in a society totally geared to its exclusion? People are most likely, at first, to organise and act in protest against interference with what they already have. In St Marylebone the rates revaluation created a strong protest movement. The rates issue contained a number of features which made it possible for it to crystallise a whole series of grievances around itself. This produced a critique of the planning problems of the area which, when linked with a mistrust of the responsible authorities (local and central Government and British Railways), set in motion a search for solutions. The protest movement provided the preconditions for action in solidly based organisations and the self confidence resulting from a series of victories.

The revaluation was sudden, drastic, widespread and manifestly unjust. It united private and council tenants while confusing the Council. Machinery for individual appeal and for collective pressure and negotiation was at hand, and victories were won. In the search for an explanation of this sudden blow it became clear that the Rent Act, the construction of offices and luxury flats and the changing class composition of the area were all related to each other and to the revaluation. The decaying condition of much of the housing was also publicised in the course of appeals. A number of Labour and Communist activists were present, willing to articulate and publicise this picture, and to put in a great deal of work on committees. This happened where there existed many acres of unused land in the midst of the most solidly working-class part of the Borough. Many here already knew the railways as landlord or employer. Steps towards release of the land were being taken, so that it appeared as a realistic objective. Finally it should be noted that the local press gave the tenants constant and prominent publicity. The whole story took place in an area of long established working-class settlement (almost entirely English) where upper-class contrasts and encroachments were familiar and resented.

In this case the motives, the confidence, the consciousness and unity and the leadership coincided at a propitious time. But many of the crucial elements here are unique, and though it may appear that a strong tenants’ movement of an advanced kind is possible it is doubtful if this could have happened in many other areas.


On 18 October the goods yard and coal yard were sold to the Councils. The fight over distribution of the booty continues. In a press statement, the Campaign argued:

‘The ceding of this land for housing is a victory but the price announced (£3½ million) is a sharp defeat ... The price of £125,000 per acre is the highest ever paid for council housing. Nearly £3½ million in profit is being made by a so-called nationalised industry on land which it acquired in 1947 for £150,000 ... Theburden on each flat for land alone (including interest on this) will be around £7,000 per flat ... Who is to pay the railways? ... Some council rents are already up to £8 a week. There is every danger that there could result sharp rent rises for existing council tenants ... Are the Council planning to put the whole load of some £10 million (with interest) on the backs of the ratepayers? In the present state of feeling about rates this would not just be politically unwise, it would be impossible. Like all rates payments it would force those least able to pay to carry the largest share. Will those who can pay most be housed? There will be the strongest pressure to find wealthy tenants for all or part of the new estate ... The government must provide an immediate subsidy to offset the whole exorbitant price of this land ... The plan must not be hatched up in secret. It must be brought into the open to allow local opinion to make itself felt. The Campaign demands the use and decking of the space above the main lines ... presses the needs of local people ... Our Goods Yard must be used to start large-scale redevelopment of the whole surrounding area. Westminster Council should draw up a list of notoriously unsatisfactory blocks ... The Campaign hails the Goods Yard decision as a first decisive step towards ending the housing scandal in the Borough. We will not rest while the slums and tenements remain.’

A week after the Marylebone sale, it was made known that the railways had quietly sold 30 acres of surplus land in London (where there is no similar mobilisation of public feeling) to private firms. This must dispel any doubts as to the importance and effectiveness of the Campaign in Marylebone.

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Last updated on 8.10.2007