17 NOVEMBER 1961, Page 9

Don't Outstay Your Income

By DEREK BARTON CHatsrmtis is coming, the goose is getting fat, and perhaps it's worth remembering that this time last year embattled tenants of King's Court, a block of flats in King's Road, Chelsea, faced the threat of eviction by Christmas Day for refusing to agree without discussion rent increases of up to 117 per cent. While tenants of Alexandra Mansions, another King's Road block, faced with similar increases, almost achieved the distinction of persuading Chelsea Council to purchase the building compulsorily. Both cases were news for a time. Both ended with a whimper rather than a bang. Tories in particular, if they are in search of new and useful social legislation, could do worse than study them, as Chelsea is not the only place where such things happened. These situations are still typical in residential metropolitan boroughs, though Chelsea was perhaps the extreme case; and they make a wry squiggle in the margin of the affluent society.

Late last summer, round holiday time, with Parliament in recess, landlords were busy noti- fying tenants of rent increases they would be demanding when the 1957 Rent Act expired towards the end of the year. So swingeing were many of the new demands in Chelsea that Captain Litchfield, the conscientious naval officer who sits for it, saw the then Minister of Housing, Mr. Henry Brooke. He had been so disgusted, he told the local paper, the West London Press, that he had written to several landlords and had not received a single acknowledgment. He even considered making their names public, and one rather wishes he had, though two at least saved him the trouble.

King's Court is a typical brick box of the Thirties, a stone's-throw from Chelsea Town Hall. It had undergone several recent changes of ownership, including two in a fortnight, ending 111) in the lap of Town and Commercial Properties Ltd. The tenants are middle-class, mostly living on fixed incomes, including a number of retired service people or their widows; the average age last summer was sixty-two; some had been there twenty-five years or so (and kept their flats in re- pair), survivors of a time when Chelsea was a cheap, unexacting place to live in. However, a good many of the flats had become rather scruffy, and there were complaints about the plumbing and other things. These tenants, some of whom had incomes of £400 to £500 a year, early in August received no- tices of rent increases under which a two-roomed flat at £195 p.a. exclusive of rates jumped to £425. They were already responsible for all service and maintenance, including fixtures, window-cleaning and decoration, yet a service charge (£90 p.a. on a two-room flat) was planked on. A new clause stipulated that tenants must redecorate. They were to contribute to porterage, heat and light in passageways, etc., insurance, maintenance of the pocket handkerchief 'lawns and gardens,' and to be liable to stamp duty on the agreement, which was for three years only. The landlords did not bother to put forward any justification beyond 'rising costs which may reasonably be contemplated over a three-year period.' They did not send anyone to inspect the flats before loosing the demands. They rounded off the letter by saying the terms were not subject to negotiation. The time given was one month.

The tenants took one of the two constructive pieces of advice which Captain Litchfield and other worried Tory MPs had extracted from the unenthusiastic Mr. Brooke and under the leader- ship of an energetic and gallant Wing-Com- mander formed a tenants' protection association.

The reaction of the agent for the owners, a Mr. A. J. Hines, to this natural and indeed officially recommended step was curious. He called the tenants who formed the association 'agitators and mutineers.' He did not reply to their courteous letter asking the landlords to negotiate new rents. He refused to recognise them and threatened if they didn't sign during September to evict them by Christmas Day.

The tenants now took the other rather clumsy weapon which the Minister of Housing had improvised, and during September, on their MP's advice, asked their council to purchase the flats compulsorily. The Minister had recommended local authorities to do this in cases of genuine exploitation, and Hackney and Stepney Councils had already gone ahead with compulsory pur- chase orders. However, the first comment of the Town Clerk of Chelsea on the Minister's circu- lar was that it was 'quite unrealistic.' Compul- sory purchase of a block of flats like King's Court,' he was reported as saying, 'was out of the question,' as the council would have to pay full market value and either re-let at the same high rents or get the ratepayers to subsidise them.

The council therefore approached this strange new object in their path with circumspection. A move by the Labour• members to call a special council meeting failed because too many of them were on holiday to muster a quorum under the council's Standing Orders. But on October 19 a report from the housing committee went before the full council. By this time Alexandra Mansions had joined in. They too had formed a tenants' association and asked the council to make a compulsory purchase order.

If King's Court is a box, Alexandra Mansions is a crate. It dates from 1897, has bare stone stair- cases, no central heating or lifts. It had changed hands three times in five months earlier in the year, each time at increasing cost, and had come to rest with Thorney Court Ltd., chairman a Mr. A. Woolf. Thorney Court paid over £70,000 for a thirty-seven-year lease. Rents had run at £135 to £190 a year exclusive of rates, and the landlords were offering fourteen-year leases for £3,500 plus a service charge later of £100 p.a. without the option of a rent; which as tenants quickly worked out were equivalent to rents of roughly £600 a year, 'not unreasonable for Chelsea,' as the agent was reported as saying, adding justly, 'this is a substantial building, by no means a slum property.' Here again the tenants were mostly elderly or retired, and some had lived there for twenty or thirty years.

The council studied the housing committee's report and sought more information about Alexandra Mansions. The committee themselves asked for a decision on King's Court to be deferred pending the outcome of negotiations between tenants and landlords. The landlords' solicitors still categorically refused to deal with the tenants' association and had insisted on a list of individual tenants. (The landlords paid the Wing-Commander the compliment of writing to him personally to say that under no circumstances would his lease be renewed.) In mid-November the housing committee, after further research, recommended against a compulsory purchase order in either case. On King's Court, on the ground that only fifteen tenants were still sticking out, a figure the tenants' association promptly repudiated, claiming a hard core of twenty-six. On Alexandra Mansions, on the ground that the landlords had indicated willingness to negotiate letting instead of selling; this was denied by tenants and only half-con- firmed 'in cases of hardship' by the landlords. Morale was low and not improved by a curious utterance of the housing committee chairman that 'it was not on grounds of hardship that we have our terms of reference.... We must look at market values, and that is what must lead us to our conclusion.' The West London Press tartly pointed out that it was hardship the Minister meant—he had laid stress on the word 'exorbitant.'

Less than a month from Christmas Day the tenants in King's Court were ,still threatened and some in Alexandra Mansions were planning to move out before Christmas. Then suddenly the council took action. The housing committee recommended a compulsory purchase order on Alexandra Mansions. Not on King's Court, where they were now negotiating with the landlords on service charges, though they hinted they would make orders on individual flats if necessary. The effect at Alexandra Mansions was like the trumpet at Jericho; the rents came tumbling down. By the end of January this year Thorney Court Ltd. were reported to be making counter- offers of £330, which might still be thought quite a lot for the privilege of living there. This was not the end of the story. Negotiations over service charges and other points at Alexandra Mansions dragged on for months. Scarcely had they made the order than the council, not wishing to be lumbered with this solid lump of Victoriana, had hinted that if the landlords saw the light they might withdraw it. The landlords, with presumably a lucrative eventual redevelopment in view, were determined to cling to the building at all costs, so the pressures were delicately poised. The landlords seem to have shown themselves stubborn in re- treat. Over King's Court, the council's indirect pressure had helped the tenants to secure a year's extension of the old rents for cases of hardship, and a five-year tenure instead of three for tenants who accepted the higher rents—but no actual reduction of rents, so one very much wonders why this block too wasn't given the full treatment. The Alexandra Mansions wrangle reached a deadlock last August. The landlords had reduced the rents from nearly seven times the gross annual value to just under four times for three- year leases (most official spokesmen have suggested two and a half to four times the gross annual value as a fair rent), but the tenants still objected strongly to the service charges, including upkeep of a minute mudpatch described as a 'garden.' At the end of August the Minister fixed October 24 for the public inquiry, and the council, faced with the real prospect of having to go through with it, decided the landlords were no longer being unreasonable, and buried the compulsory purchase order with full military honours. Ironically, the landlords gracefully hauled their flag down and dropped the service charges and a demand that the tenants must strip and polish the floors and re-lacquer all metalwork if they leave, but not before the report recommending withdrawal was printed, thus docking the council of the final feather in their cap.

What has been gained? At Alexandra Mansions 'reasonable leases on reasonable terms'; the council will keep the case under constant review; and if after three years excessive demands are made, the big blunt instru- ment can be brought out again. At King's Court, frankly not much; and that is what the tenants, who didn't have a compulsory purchase order to slug with and face the possibility of a repetition in 1963, think. Especially as the negotiations 'over service charges are apparently continuing even now. (The landlords, incidentally, refused to accept any rent during the year of the fight, thus giving these orderly people guilty feelings about non-payment.) One year of the new tenancy has virtually gone, and during it the people in both blocks have had a wretched time, not only from the suspense and worry, but from the homilies read them by everyone from the Minister downwards on the wickedness of persistently living above their station. Their crime is, they cannot lash out £400 a year. Yet are they to blame if Chelsea has grown fat and fashionable around them when their lives, their loves, their associations are centred there? A council tenant, no less a human being, must be found somewhere else if ejected. Not so a Tory gentlewoman who never did even the Labour Party any harm.

No one comes out of it with much credit, except the tenants themselves and the Member for Chelsea. Not the Minister, who never seems to have thought this mattered, in Chelsea or any- where else. Not Chelsea Borough Council, for all their elbow grease; never had men to be so pushed into battle. Not of course the landlords. But a shareholder (good luck to him) did protest at the annual general meeting of Town and Commercial Properties that the company's rents were much higher than in other blocks of flats with similar accommodation. The King's Court business, he suggested, 'had caused deep resentment and loss of faith in our company.'

Chelsea, as I have said, is not the only place where this sort of thing happened. It has a whacking Tory majority, but in marginal constituencies there might be an awkward little turnover of votes. There was no mention of rents in the Queen's Speech. The number of the LCC's homeless families continues to increase. Certainly rents are difficult to legislate about. Landlords are in as equivocal a position under a Tory government as trade unions under a Socialist. There will be a temptation to do nothing until the next round of big rent increases. Yet common sense as well as common decency demands that something should be done about this ugliness in the social system.