MEETING A NEED – THE ORIGINS OF BIRKENHEAD METHODIST HOUSING AID SOCIETY
It was at a Methodist Circuit Meeting in 1963, that a young teacher stood up and told of the plight of one of his pupils and the appalling housing conditions which he and his family had to endure.
The appeal was so touching that a group of eight individuals from that meeting pledged to help and combat these housing conditions. The group was subsequently gathered together at the home of William T Frost at 142/144 Conway Street, Birkenhead.
This property, which subsequently became the office for the new organisation had been acquired by William Frost and his wife, Dorothy, in the early 1960’s. The money realised from the sale of their quiet suburban house had been put to use to create, by conversion of 2 empty shop premises, a home, office, coffee bar and chapel where the young people of the neighbourhood could spend their spare time in a productive and informal way in a caring and friendly environment. It was known as the ‘Horseman’ and was named so by Will, because of the countrywide journey carried out on horseback by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. The project was Will’s answer to a spiritual calling to help the young people of the poorer downtown areas, a call based upon his firm Christian commitment as a Methodist layman.
The first meeting of those eight members took place on Monday 20 April 1964 and it was agreed that the organisation would hence forth be known as ‘Birkenhead (Methodist) Housing Aid Society Limited’ with Will Frost as its first Secretary. Founder members of that first historic Committee were Oswald Roberts (Chairman), Will Frost, Will McIntyre, George Jones, Norman Mumby, Len Matthews, Constance Harvey and Dorothy Frost.
The Committee resolved, that night, to purchase its first 4 houses for letting at ‘reasonable’ rents to applicants, ‘irrespective of colour, class or creed’. An appeal was launched for money needed to fund these purchases and the necessary repairs, members of the committee delving deep into their own personal pockets, not for the last time.
Constance Harvey remembered the first family to be helped by the Society:
“I was asked to carry out the visiting and interviewing of applicants, because of my professional background as tuberculosis almoner (social worker) for Birkenhead. The first family we housed was a young couple with a small baby, who where living, cooking and sleeping in one bedroom of a small terraced house. The child was quite ill, with the appalling conditions, and the marriage was in danger of breaking down. I am quite convinced that it was only as a result of our help that both the marriage and the child’s life were saved”.
The steady appeal for donations and loans continued and slowly the stock increased. Each house acquired represented an enormous triumph, but with so much work to be done there was no let up in the search for more properties.
Following the historic television play “Cathy Come Home”, highlighting the plight of a homeless young couple, further momentum was given to the Society which by that time had been joined by Clifford Tristram, David Faragher and Ron Owens.
It is interesting to note the commitment of the Committee to the preservation of family life through its housing policy and also its caring approach in helping many families to become established on the Home Ownership property ladder, through counselling, advice, and in assistance with savings through a variety of schemes.
BUILDING THE BUSINESS THROUGH THE 1970’S
By 1970 the stock had increased to over 30 properties. In order to control the management, rent collection and service better office accommodation at 112 Claughton Road was acquired, opening two mornings a week. A part-time rent collector (Tom Charleton) was appointed.
The Housing Act of 1969 enabled Housing Associations to apply for Improvement Grants from Birkenhead Corporation, and for the first time real improvements to the quality of the housing stock became possible. At this time the first of the RBM prefabricated kitchens were being put in place at the rear of many of the small terraced properties. These units had the advantage of being both compact and inexpensive but, with hindsight, proved to be of short term life only.
Despite the continued persistence and hard work on the part of the Committee, many of the early acquisitions were being lost through slum clearance programmes. By 1975, the stock had increased to over 50 homes. The Housing Act of 1974, considerably extended the role of The Housing Corporation as provider of finance for Housing Association activity, and also made provision for the distribution of the newly available “Housing Association Grant”, through both Housing Corporation and Local Authority, in substantial amounts. This led the Association in common with many others, to embark upon a considerable increase in activity. The Association’s first sheltered housing scheme, funded by Wirral Borough Council was opened in 1979 in Tranmere, and named Clifford Grange in recognition of the enthusiastic and untiring work of Clifford Tristram.
At this time the organisation was still known as Birkenhead Methodist Housing Aid Society and considerable debate ensued on whether a change of title should take place. Some were in favour of the word “Churches” to be incorporated to generate wider interest and support. There was a consensus of opinion, that there was indeed a need to express the wider influence which the Society wished to attain. In 1976 therefore a new title was adopted which has remained to this day.
WIRRAL METHODIST HOUSING ASSOCIATION LIMITED – INTO THE 1980’S
The appointment of the ‘new’ Association’s first full time member of staff, Bernard Johnson as Manager, was made to be followed by Eric Baldwin and Frank Roberts. The first full time Housing Management post was created in 1980, with the appointment of Eileen Browne. One of the longest serving members of staff was Dorothy Cafferey, who served the Association faithfully in many ways, from 1979 to 1995, her final position being Secretary to the Chief Executive. Other long serving members of staff include Linda Tweedle and Val McKendry who served from 1982 to 2009 and respectively 1983 to 2007 when they retired.
Likewise changes took place within the Management Committee (now known as The Board) Oswald Roberts, the founding Chairman, finally stood down from office in 1976 after 12 years of demanding and outstanding service. Chairmanship passed first to Eric Hyde, a Chartered Architect, then briefly to Eric Beck, for a short term, before his untimely death, when it returned to Eric Hyde. Following this Peter Edwards took charge and after his untimely death, eventually to David Faragher after a short spell once again by Eric Hyde
The Association’s second Sheltered Housing Scheme came in 1982 at Wesley Grange in Woodchurch. With the completion of its third and most recent sheltered scheme, at Epworth Grange on Park Road West the Association can be justifiably proud of its 114 units of accommodation for the elderly. In addition to the continuing work of rehabilitation, the Association completed its first general family new build development at Sisters Way, jointly developing, with Servite Houses, the site of the Sisters of the Poor Hostel in Parkfield Avenue.
With the Association’s increase in stock, the growing burden of managing a repair programme led to the appointment of its first full time Maintenance Officer in 1986. This has enabled the Association to operate a responsive repairs service, which has been subsequently developed further and of which it is justifiably proud.
The mechanism of Housing Association finance received considerable upheaval as a result of the 1988 Housing Act. Staff changes were made to meet the challenges which this presented head-on. A new post, that of Chief Executive, was created, to bring with it a new direction and expertise in development skills. Alun Hughes F.R.I.C.S., was appointed in January 1989.
THE BRAVE NEW WORLD OF THE 1990’S AND THE 21ST CENTURY
As a result of the farsightedness of the Board, the financial standing and development potential of the Association was recognised sufficiently to allow it to continue expansion with Government grant funding from The Housing Corporation. In addition grants were secured from a variety of sources including Merseyside Development Corporation, Wirral Council and other Government initiatives such as, “Flats Over The Shop” and, “Single Regeneration Budget”. This has enabled the Association to grow to over 850 units of accommodation managed by a sizeable professional staff. The Association’s housing stock is concentrated through deliberate choice within the wider Wirral and principally in central Birkenhead. There is also some stock in New Brighton, Seacombe, Bebington, Woodchurch, Hoylake and Ellesmere Port.
In addition the Association works increasingly in partnership with a number of other agencies and family groups to provide accommodation for victims of domestic violence as well as people with learning and other disabilities, including a ‘historic’ and innovative small programme of home ownership for people with a long term disability (SOLD).
Eric Hyde who was largely credited with the ‘professionalisation’ of the Association, sadly passed away in June 1996. The Chairmanship of the Association passed after David Faragher through David Stevenson, Rev Pat Billsborrow and Mike Howlett to Lionel Bolland who took up the role in 2017.
2010 ONWARDS AND THE CURRENT POLITICAL CLIMATE
Within recent years the housing movement has been going through a period of change unprecedented in the Association’s history.
Under the Coalition Government which came into power in 2010, capital grants for developing new properties were cut and associations encouraged to make up the shortfall through increased rent levels under the, ‘Affordable’ Housing Programme. In addition the introduction of the Bedroom Tax placed greater strain on the ability of tenants, deemed by the Government to live in houses bigger than they ‘needed’ placed the Association’s rental income stream in jeopardy. This alongside the Benefit Cap introduced has had to be carefully managed by the Association, while at the same time, rising to the challenge of continuing to deliver new housing schemes.
The Conservative Government elected in 2015 did not appear sympathetic to the ethos or efficiency of the Movement in meeting the widely publicised housing crisis and responded by a range of measures which put the future of the Movement in some doubt. Included within these measures came the requirement to reduce rents by 1% per annum for 4 years, the restriction of housing benefit to Local Housing Allowance levels and a ‘hesitant’ agreement from the Movement to the introduction of a form of Voluntary Right to Buy.
However following a Referendum result indicating a British withdrawal from the European Union and the election of a new Leader of the Conservative Party, the mood has softened and the sector is being increasingly seen as a valued partner of Government in the provision of much needed affordable housing for rent with the promise of substantial funds for its delivery. Proposals to limit Housing Benefit in housing association properties to Local Housing Allowance levels have been dropped and the Movement is awaiting a Housing Green Paper by the Government.
The Association is at a further turning point as it waits to see how these changes will finally manifest and as the planned roll out of Universal Credit continues. The announcement of Chief Executive Alun Hughes’ intention to retire in 2018 is likely to bring together further changes but he leaves the Association in a robust financial position with forward thinking plans for new developments into the future.