I can't claim to have known him but I did visit Colin shortly after Talking Anarchy - a book entirely made up of a fascinating exchange between him and David Goodway - was brought out. I suspect mine was one of the last published interviews he gave as he was already getting very frail by then.
The interview itself I reproduce below, forgive the somewhat florid style I was still getting the hang of things...
DEBENHAM is one of the prettier villages in Suffolk, with immaculate little white cottages overlooking clean roads bedecked with flowers.
Like many rural places in East Anglia, it lacks the dreary backstreets and council estates of major county towns, and has a strong community of affluent long term residents. They are up in arms at the moment to deny even the possibility of homes being built on their patch, a view 79-year-old Colin Ward smiles wryly at as we sit down in the centre of the village to talk.
“There is a venomous crusade to determine that there should be no new housing here - especially simple affordable housing - so the providers have to make every kind of decision to make sure that this doesn’t apply to what they build. They don’t really have much choice, Government planning legislation has always been a method of saying ‘what we have we hold’.
“As you know Mrs Thatcher determined that the council houses should be sold off, so now the adult children of the local families have nowhere that they can possibly afford in their own villages, and so they move into rented accomodation in Ipswich.”
Four decades ago, Colin warned the government that the problems we are facing today of unaffordable housing and rocketing house prices were going to happen. It’s a seemingly incredible feat of prescience (he also predicted that administration would be the undoing of the NHS at around the same time) until you realise that the signs were all there.
Run-down council estates posed a huge problem for both Tories and Labour at the time, as their residents didn’t have any incentive to look after properties they had no control over. Famously the first thing ex-council homeowners did once Thatcher’s sell-off began was to change the colour of their front doors. Yet Colin had come up with an idea that would solve the problem without a sell-off.
“What’s happening now is ironic as far as I’m concerned because in the 60s I said the answer to affordable council housing was to have a wholesale turnover to tenant co-operatives - in other words to give tenant associations control of the whole thing.
“The people who wanted this were not people on the left but Tories because it fitted their sell-off policies. Labour politicians would say to me ‘What crisis? There isn’t any crisis in housing’.
“This was despite a shocking lack of maintenance and a really paternalistic approach to the tenants. Then of course Mrs Thatcher did her great sell off which has in the end done all this damage, and Labour has followed her policies totally.”
Despite a left wing refusal to accept there was a problem and a right wing response that only made matters worse, Colin did make an impact with his proposals. There are currently over 2,000 tenant co-operatives in the UK today controlling rents and looking after themselves, surely a vindication of his ideas. Yet Colin rightly points out that this is only a tiny fraction of the housing market, one that pales in comparison with the might of commercial landlording and private ownership.
Tenant co-operatives are vastly more efficient in keeping houses open for the less affluent to live in, but there are simply not enough of them and as council houses are sold off or left to rot, Prescott’s policy of building more private houses is not going to help. House prices have risen to an average £150,000, and average wages remain at £28,000. For young families, these sorts of prices are vastly beyond what they can afford. At some point there has to be a system of housing which allows young people to live free of the extortionate rents of landlords and the extortionate prices of private sellers. Tenant co-operatives, built by the government, would seem the best solution to this problem.
Colin wrote in 1973: “The tenant take-over of the municipal estate is one of those obviously sensible ideas which is dormant because our approach to municipal affairs is still stuck in nineteenth-centuary paternalism.” Surely now Britain’s ‘father knows best’ approach to housing is supposedly dead, this would be a good time to consider re-introducing Colin’s plan.