“I went to the Co-op meetings early on with my Mum as it was a social thing. Mum would organise fundraisers and dances and most of the Co-op members would be there. There was never a clear divide between my Mum’s socialising and the Co-op”

Steve Mepsted: In 1976 you were three years old and your Mum, Anna Malcolm, had this idea of setting up a Housing Co-op. You were too young to know what this was about, what it meant– at what point did you become aware of the Co-op?

Well I knew that we were going to be moving and that we were moving not too far away because we lived in Talbot Road at the time. I knew we were going to be moving soon from a one bedroom flat where my brother and I shared a room at the front, which would have been the living room I guess and Mum had the bedroom. We did all our socialising in the kitchen, everything happened in the kitchen.  I must have been seven or eight when we moved to Lancaster Road and the great thing was that Emily Short and her companion or partner, whatever they were, lived next door which was great for me as Emily was like my surrogate grandmother and I got on with Bert really well.

SM: So it took a little while from the first thoughts and meetings about the Co-op for it to become a reality.

CM: Yes, when we moved in it was 1980 and there was a tramp living in the next door because it was still derelict before becoming our Co-op property. He was a very tall black man who used to have old robes on. I was never scared of him but was very curious. I do remember that they soon started to renovate the house.

SM: So you’ve grown up in the Co-op .

CM: Yes, I moved into number 32 when I was eight and moved into number 30 when I was twenty-eight. So that’s twenty years in my family home and then I moved just next door!

SM: When you were young did you have an inkling that this was different – that this was not a ‘normal’ way of living?

CM: No, not when I was a young child, I knew the other children in the road; we went to each other’s houses. I lived with my Dad part time in Harlesden and knew the children there as well. So I was just being a child – also my Mum knew everyone round here. In Harlesden people certainly didn’t seem to know their neighbours like we did round here. When I was a teenager I would go to friends houses and realise that sometimes they didn’t know their neighbours at all. Also I went along to the Co-op meetings early on with my Mum as it was social – we had our AGM at the Venture Centre and remember having really nice food there and music and a bit of a party atmosphere. Mummy would organise fundraisers and dances and most of the Co-op members would be at those dances and at Jumble Sales under the Westway. There was never a clear divide between my Mothers socialising and the Co-op.

SM: Your Mum was obviously a well-loved figure. She is credited with having the idea to set up the Co-op; she had all this energy for fundraising and community. What kind of person was she,from your experience?

CM: Oh my gosh! It’s interesting because I was a child with her when she was active in the Co-op. I remember her being constantly busy doing all these things and having a part time job at North Kensington Law Centre and always going out onto All Saints Road when there were problems with the police and representing whoever had just been arrested. I still occasionally get some man come up to me and say ‘You’re Mum was great – she got me out of jail” or “Your Mum was great – she fostered me when I needed somewhere to stay” I would find out things about my Mum from other people, but I don’t necessarily remember them. During the Miners strike a lot of people around here got together and were hosts for the children of the Miners. I remember that. So I remember all this, being busy with fundraisers and I remember her being scatty. I also remember thinking ‘One minute you’re here doing this and then off doing that, and I just want you to be my Mum’. She would cook dinner really late and would garden at night, and I just didn’t understand it when I was a kid. She was very, very sociable taking forever to go form Colville Primary School when she picked me up, down Portobello Road and up Lancaster Road, it could take between half an hour to an hour. I was the moodiest child because we kept stopping and she talked to everyone, and now I do it! We went to the Apollo pub on All Saints and the Landlord would tell her off for bringing me. There were not supposed to be any children or dogs in the pub. It was all right to have drug dealers in though! They did have standards!

My Mum instilled in me that if I did not join the Housing Co-operative as soon as I was able then I was going to find it very hard to find somewhere to live. So I joined when I was eighteen and was as active as I could be. So I really became aware of the Co-op and its importance then. Also I began to make better connections: all these people who were at these social events that my Mum had organised, were also members of the Co-op. So I learned a lot of socialising and social skills from my Mum. I remember when she passed away and we had her funeral people came up to me and said this is just like a party your mum would have organised! It was upbeat and something I just got from her.

SM: After you joined at 18 what roles did you hold in the first years?

CM: I was involved in the setting up of ‘Sesame Shortlife’, I wasn’t sure what I could do to help but I was always good with Maths, so I offered to be the Treasurer. We then had the ‘Information and Communication’ committee, which was an attempt to harness all these great ideas which people had at meetings that would never be followed through. I was on one or two Allocations Committees and then Treasurer for two years.  In the second year of being the treasurer I became pregnant and since that point I haven’t had any active role in the Co-op, as I have a young child, but I still attend the meetings when I can. It’s a real learning curve being a member of the Co-op, because I started when I was eighteen I was around new members who had a different energy and would work in a particular way but on the allocations committees there are the older members who worked very differently again. I got to know these differences and I found that it opened my eyes as to how the Co-op worked as a whole. It helped me when I started working, when I went into a workplace for the first time I found it helped with all the office politics and I knew when people talked of policies and constitutions or trustees I had something to reference. It made me more comfortable to think probably no one else here knows what to do in his or her role either! But you knew that you had to find out if you were to be any good at it. I joined courses to help me with the Treasurer post. I had to find out the links available for me to get advice, especially legal advice.

SM: There has been a notion in the Co-op, not a concrete ruling, that when parents of the Children of the Co-op die then the children will automatically get the tenancy for the flat? However I seem to remember that when Anna, your Mum died that wasn’t the case for you?

CM: Well there are two things to this. Outside of the Co-op within Housing Associations, and their tenancy agreements, if the child is living in the home and their parent(s) pass away then they do have succession rights to the home. In my case Mummy moved to a nursing home because she was ill and that was the major difference, she had not passed away at that time. If she had passed away (while she was at home) then the deal would have come under Housing Trust agreement. I remember it being one of the most stressful times. I took a year off work to deal with my Mum moving and my moving, I ended up not going back to work and did other things, I had found other interests work-wise. The Co-op was actually a lot more supportive than I thought they would be, and also towards my brother. The Co-op understood and agreed to offer both Chris and I flats to move into. But it was still a very panicky time because there was a worry that the Co-op may say that there were no other flats and we would have to move out. The Co-op members were as reassuring as possible though. In terms of succession: the whole ethos of the Co-op needs to be more firmly instilled in us all. At the time my Mum thought this might be a mad but great idea! There were all these derelict properties that we would be happy to live in and manage and we’d have a home and the properties wouldn’t be run down. It’s a win-win situation. At the time that was fine, now were in one of the most expensive areas of the UK and there aren’t the derelict properties that need managing, the attitude is now different because there aren’t that many opportunities to be housed as there were when the Co-op started. If you were willing to work hard and found the time to do it then there were possibilities and opportunities; people are now applying to be members of the co-op for totally different reasons, the ethos is changed.

SM: For what kinds of reasons do you think people are applying now?

CM: There’s a naiveté…a desperation, perhaps people are thinking it’s an easy solution. It’s really not easy! It takes a lot of work, especially for single people trying to be housed. There is no way a council is going to house you and so it is really worth putting in a lot of effort with the Co-op as we have those kinds of properties, and they are like gold dust. People don’t realise the amount of time and effort involved.

SM: I look at un-housed members around the meeting table and I wonder maybe the time is right again, because of the current economic and housing crisis, to review the empty properties around here, make a proposal and advise and guide the un-housed members to petition the Trust to set up another Shortlife Housing Association like ‘Sesame’?

CB: Yes, this goes back to what the Co-op was set up for. I think there needs to be a serious revisit to the ethos of the Co-op. New members don’t understand the Co-op; we don’t have any structures in place to communicate how they could become active and the benefits of becoming active.

SM: Yes, I remember being in meetings in my early time as a member, I felt confused, I didn’t know the language that was being spoken here, I didn’t know if I could talk or even raise my hand and sometimes I thought what the hell am I doing here.

CB: I think for our Co-op to thrive and move forward there is a lot of hard work to be done. There have been people in the past who have really tried and older members haven’t always passed on the gauntlet to younger and newer members to allow them to do it. New members do not know how to come forward and say here are my skills; this is what I can offer. When Sesame Shortlife was started everyone had a purpose and each worked hard to get housing and people who didn’t have skills before certainly developed new ones.

SM: Yes, as a founder member of ‘Sesame Shortlife’ I remember it paid dividends back into the Co-op as a whole. It made people realise that they were active in housing issues. Perhaps un-housed members need to form their own committee and audit their own skills, pool contacts, ideas and resources and feel part of something. They would develop a voice at meetings and feel less left out in terms of the language being spoken and the procedural matters. If such a committee could be officially recognised and became a reporting committee, then the newer members could be accruing points and the Co-op might just find that the skills and ideas of the newer members, once revealed and listened to, could bring great benefits to the Co-op as a whole. The un-housed members would be better placed to feel that they were an integral part of the activities of the Co-op at all levels: that on the one hand they were actively contributing to their own potential for housing, but also via their actions; to the Co-ops ultimate survival.

CB: Yes, at a simple level the written report that each committee convener supplies to the meetings, so that business can be done, needs to be mandatory, not just dependent on whether the person turns up. There must be a written report of the committees business ready for each meeting. It helps for organisational business to be conducted but because it is shared, there is the chance that other members may be able to help with contacts, or have a skill, which should push the issue to the next stage. So often convenors would come to a meeting and just talk about what they could remember being said six weeks ago and not have minutes to hand out. This is time wasting and any organisation needs these simple things, like reports and minutes so that we can move forwards, to new ideas. The gauntlet that is being handed down at the moment is an old, embedded way of working.

One thing that was put together when I was treasurer was to allocate a certain amount of money for training and the Housing Trust also allocate some money. I don’t think a lot of people know this and why is that? People should know this, a lot could benefit from training, courses that are linked to roles in the Co-op.

SM: So why don’t people know this, what is wrong with our communication?

CB: It’s a question of energy, the younger and newer members have the energy but it is not being tapped or space provided for it. People like Mary and myself, when we in roles brought energy to them. We have such a poor way of interviewing new applicants and this leads to discouragement, because new members are often recommended by the older members who say ‘Oh, don’t worry, just turn up and no ones going to ask you anything’. Hypothetically we could just close the membership waiting list now. But I think that membership should be reviewed every year, reviews of attendance, of current housing, whether the member is still living in the area and has connections with the area, is there still a housing need, has the offer of training been taken up. If the answer is positive and can be proved then they should stay on the waiting list. If there has been no action then they shouldn’t. When I went to University I wrote a letter asking to be kept on the waiting list stating that I would not be attending meetings or up for any roles for a while because I was at University. I was always a concerned un-housed member and I was not complacent.

SM: The Co-op is 35 years old this year. What do you think the co-op needs to do to survive another 35 years?

CB: Think of our current climate and the talk of “Big Society”, some of our members are in active community public service roles, at Kensington and Chelsea College, working for the council etc.…they could be realizing that we could play on these ideas and say that we are a part of them, that we fit into them perfectly, you could support us or fund us to do what we should be doing because we reflect the aims of your ideas. No one really knows what the “Big Society” is, so we could tell them! We could approach our Conservative council saying we would like to increase our stock so we can carry forward the ideas of the “Big Society”. Everyone who has been living in the Co-op had already been ‘doing the big society’ for 35 years.

It’s a skill set issue again, Pat Mason (local Councillor and Co-op member) could help us word it; to be a benefit to us and to un-housed members. There are a lot of properties out there, which are not let or are under-let because of the cost of them. There is talk of a review of the under or over-occupation of previously full Housing Association properties, and that there may be a ruling put in place that gives power to the Associations to move you if you are taking up a lot of space.  I think that’s a worry. I feel that that could be a threat because to a certain extent that is true, there are council and Trust properties which are very under-occupied, one person living in a three bedroomed house for example, and it’s also true the other way round, a single mother with three children living in a two bedroom or even one bedroom flat.

The Government could say to the Local Housing Authorities you have been well aware of these discrepancies and haven’t done anything about them, so we’ll take them away. Housing need on the other hand is constant, its what had kept me in the Co-op, I couldn’t afford to go on the private market for property, if I was on the private market I couldn’t do my part time job while I have my child and I certainly couldn’t live round here. I would have a totally different life. In terms of survival, the other thing that has changed from when the Co-op was first an idea is our work, and the amount of time that we as a society work. We work much longer hours, and often need to.

New applicants are often living in privately rented accommodation in the area, because that’s where their work or their children are. They have to work really hard to make the rent and it’s hard to get the time to volunteer for extra roles and responsibilities that a Co-op demands. A lot who have managed to take on roles have found that they soon have conflicts with their time. It would be a good idea to rotate posts every two years and that would be good for a potential training programme. I hope the Co-op is still here when my son becomes 18 and my brother’s son too. I hope that they will be members and for the right reasons, that they will know what they have, and they will be willing to contribute.