Geof Branch – Interview

“We burned our Poll Tax cards in Powis Square, Joe Strummer gave me his card to burn!”

Geoff Branch: I’m Geoff Branch, currently secretary of the co-op. I did one stint of secretary from about ’87 to ’97 and I think currently I’ve been doing it again since about 2004, something like that. I can’t really remember.

GB: I did a stint as treasurer from about the late ’70s to early ’80s. I was there pretty much at the beginning of the co-op. I think I was there from about the second meeting; there used to be a community centre where the clinic is now, on Kensington Park Road. It was an old building, it included a printing press, the press moved there from Ladbroke grove in about ’76, ’77, sometime around then. I think the first meeting would have been in late 1976, and I think I was there at the second meeting. The main movers at that time were Jason Copeland, who I think was not necessarily interested in living in a Co-op, but he wanted to get experience in setting up a housing association because he was looking for a career that way, and Anna Malcolm, who was looking for somewhere to live. A lot of us were squatters; I had been squatting in Westbourne Park Road next door to Tony Allen and people, so we were regulars at the Elgin where some people say alternative comedy started, with Tony having regular sessions. I don’t know what night of the week it was, but a lot of people appeared there: The 101’ers with Joe Strummer, Alexei Sayle, I think DuDu Pukwana might have played there with Spear. So it was mostly Jason and Anna who set up the Co-op, got it registered and put our constitution together. I think Linda Saunders actually typed up the constitution.

GB: Jason cut a deal with Notting Hill Housing Trust to give us the 10 houses, which we still have. I think one of the big problems with the Co-op is we’ve never managed to get any more property and so therefore it does mean the Co-op is a bit inward-looking, we’ve not been able to expand. So Jason got this deal together, so we got 34 flats and 10 houses. At the time, All Saints Road become the ‘Frontline’; this area was considered hard to let so they didn’t mind giving us these properties here, because nobody wanted to live on Lancaster road and All Saints road in those days apart from us!

Steve Mepsted: How different it is today!

GB: Absolutely, yeah! I was then living in a bedsit on Oxford Gardens when I got allocated this flat here, which I moved into on April 1st 1980. I think our first houses; were 26, 30 and 22. I think we got the first houses in about ’78, ’79, like I say I moved into this one in ’80.

SM: So they were staggered? 10 didn’t all come at once?

GB: No they didn’t.

SM: Were there enough people to fill them, if 10 people came at once?

GB: Oh yeah, we had a limit on membership at 50 members. The Co-op’s constitution says that in order to be a tenant you have to be a member so yeah, there was a waiting list. The emphasis then was 50% on housing need, but of course all of us were in housing need and 50% amount of work done, and I suppose because I’d done quite a lot of work I managed to get allocated. Which was great because at the time I had a young daughter, who wasn’t living with me ’cause I was living in a one bedroom flat. So she came to live with me and sort of swapped between her mother and me for the next few years, but then ended up living permanently with me here from when she was about 11 onwards. That’s Lily, and then of course I’ve got another daughter, Carla, whom I share with Linda, of course. So Carla has lived part of her time here and part of her time at Linda’s, so she’s another child of the Co-op. I think the nature of Notting Hill Housing Trust has changed along with everything else, we certainly had a better relationship with the Trust in the early days, partly because they had an office in All Saints Road so we were on very good terms, we had regular meetings with them.

There was a Co-ops’ forum, a West London Co-ops Forum with all the Co-ops in the area: there’s Seagull which is a women’s Co-op, there was Bramley’s which is just down the road, near Freston Road by Latimer Road tube station, there was W14 and W12 Co-ops, can’t remember if there were any others. But we used to meet regularly with the Trust at fairly high levels, at director level, so we’ve been severely down-graded; they don’t really take us seriously, we represent a very small part of their tenancy. Certainly when I was Secretary in the ’80s, and also when I was Treasurer in the ’80s one of the main projects was trying to get more housing, and if you remember Steve we put that presentation together, you think it was about ’92?

SM: I think it was around ’92, ’93?

GB: You think it was at Novotel? I thought it was at the Town Hall but I could be wrong.

GB: There was a big meeting of the area management committee of the trust, which included the local doctor, Dr. Pettifer, who was very supportive of us.

SM: That’s right

GB: I think she was the chair and we were pitching for a couple more houses in All Saints road. The committee was very supportive of us but the trust at a higher management level blocked it. Like I said, part of the problem with the Co-op generally I think is in our inability to expand. My time as treasurer and certainly when Geoff Mole had been treasurer we managed to accumulate a lot of reserves, which we put into a separate fund; I think it might have reached nearly a quarter of a million at one point. I probably shouldn’t say this, it shouldn’t get out because otherwise the Trust might try and claw it back! The idea there was to try and buy some property, but in order to do that we had to be registered as a fully-fledged housing association, in order to do that we had to be sponsored by Notting Hill Housing Trust, and they refused to do that.

GB: So we’re stuck, we’re a management Co-op, we don’t own any property, we can’t own any property. After that, property prices started to soar so I think we pretty much gave up on the idea of owning. We couldn’t have owned anywhere around here because the area changed so much. And we didn’t really fancy owning somewhere in Uxbridge!

SM: That’s a very interesting thing, just to digress for a second. When I was talking to Tony Bennett he was saying ‘oh if I won the lottery, the best possible thing I could think to do with the money would be to buy two big properties and get some coop expansion’

GB: Good man!

SM: We couldn’t expand now under the current regime, but could there be any other way one could potentially expand, to allow more members to be housed.

GB: Well, there have been various projects. We helped Portobello coop set up and they did manage to turn themselves into a housing association, they bought a property in St Marks road. We helped the Short Life ‘Sesame’ set up; we’ve tried various things. The trouble is we’ve been going for so long now that a lot of the energy has dissipated. I’m really impressed by the children of the co-op who have carried on being in the co-op, that’s great. I don’t want to be too pessimistic about it, I think the Co-op’s done pretty well, W12 Co-op completely imploded about 15 years ago. There was a period of something, which we called ‘the bribe’. Thatcher’s government in order to possibly undermine the idea of coop housing, sold off all the council housing that she possibly could she then offered a similar deal to people living in housing association places that they couldn’t refuse, I think there was some legal barrier to buying your own housing association places, but they bunged you a bribe in order to allow people to move out of social housing.

SM: Something like £16’000

GB: Yeah, it was quite a lot of money in the late ’70s, early ’80s and a lot of people in W12 took that. I think we’ve only had one or two people in W11 take it and fortunately we managed to cut a deal with the Trust so we always managed to get first preference on filling the vacancy that was left in the flat. With W12 Co-op though lots of people took the bribe and the Co-op just fell in on itself so I mean we’ve actually done quite well to survive as long as we have, even though there are problems. We were always very idealistic, we always had this idea that the Co-op had to be run by its members so the sovereign body was the general meeting. But in recent years of course, attendance at the general meeting has fallen off and we’ve had a problem getting meetings quorate so we’ve had to change our constitution and revert to a management committee just to get business done. When we started out we had all these fantastic ideas – we were going to convert one of the rooms on the landing into a laundry for the co-op because in the early days no one had a washing machine we all used to walk down to the launderette on Westbourne Park Road. We thought we’d have a laundry, a proper office, but none of it ever happened. The most we got was the photocopier on the landing at number 16.

SM: I think there was a little office space there at some point?

GB: There’s a cupboard there, which has a filing cabinet in it. We’ve sort of muddled on, I guess the Co-op has always been a bunch of eccentrics, maybe less so than it used to be, but I think the whole nature of W11 Co-op was that we were attracted to living around here and a lot of us were squatters when many of the old houses were being pulled down. For me, Portobello Market has always been a defining characteristic of the area, and sadly that’s changing. The fruit and veg stalls are hardly there any more, they’re just there as tourist attractions on a Friday and Saturday.

GB: And they’re great the fruit and veg stallholders; they’re a little community in themselves. When I had a really bad period in the early ’90s when I was unemployed for a long time and I was sort of living hand to mouth, they were really generous a lot of the stall holders. I’m happy to be living here, I know Tony Allen would like to move out of the country or move to the seaside, I think Kiran has found some information about some possibilities for doing that for over-60s, but I’m perfectly happy living here

SM: When you think back to the beginnings of the Co-op, it’s hard to imagine now how crumbling and how unloved this little half a square mile was.

GB: Well, you would have had the same with daughters growing up in the ’80s, when All Saints Road was a bit heavy. It was worrying

SM: It was worrying yeah, one learned how to negotiate and at that point if you’d been squatting enough around here, if you’d been bedsitting enough around here, you were not particularly scared or even really think of yourselves as being in a dangerous area, I know I didn’t. I remember there being a (??) from time to time. Wherever you are and whatever community, for want of a better word, you’re part of it just becomes your life. So I guess experiences of squatting, experiences of alternative ways of living which then got picked up by the Thatcher government and had its neck wrung out of it, that’s caused a lot of current problems with mortgages and so on. But I guess it makes sense that the flats would have been filled by pretty interesting, eccentric people who had drive, energy and experience. Do you think it was just luck; that the dynamic of personalities was enough to actually get the thing rolling and for it to have survived as long as it has, bearing in mind as you said that other Co-ops haven’t fared as well? Was it just luck or did people have to be motivated? Did you have to learn really big new skills?

GB: Oh yeah, when I took over as treasurer, I actually went on a course to learn basic book- keeping. I ended up teaching up in Wornington, but I went on a basic bookkeeping course. I think I got my first PC probably in 1983, an old Amstrad, but before that we did the books in ledgers

SM: Do they still survive, those ledgers?

GB: They’re probably in the cupboard in number 16; I don’t think Geoff Mole throws any of it away. I’ll lend you the key if you want to go up and have a look. There’s a filing cabinet which I try and keep reasonably tidy the top drawer has got all important documents of the coop with big letters saying ‘do not remove’. If you remember we had a 30th anniversary party some years ago

GB: We also had a dinner up in The First Floor Restaurant. I thought Mary and some of the others had put together a little history of the Co-op then. So it might be worth asking Mary.

GB: We had to re-register the constitution, there had been some changes in the law in the 1988 Housing Act, and so we had to revise our constitution. So yeah, it certainly forced me to learn all sorts of skills and I guess other people as well. But I mean, in the end the Co-ops primary purpose of course was to provide housing, but we’ve always been very conscious of the fact we’re a bunch of people who live in these two streets and we form part of the community. We are represented on the various community associations; although I don’t think any of us ever go, because it’s pretty boring. There is a community here and also I think we’re quite proud of the fact we are self-managing, we have learnt those skills which allow us to, for better or worse, actually run the thing. Like conducting meetings, taking minutes, writing constitutions, forming little committees, all that sort of stuff.

SM: Yeah, it is impressive. Despite my earlier statement about being completely bewildered, confused and quite annoyed at everyone at meetings sometimes. Whilst I was sort of getting on with putting videos together and stuff we’ve talked about and trying to be as active as possible, that it is actually a pretty impressive thing that was born out of a very interesting time where nobody wanted to actually live around here and to bring us right up to now, where we all get our Foxton’s leaflet through saying: ‘Dear resident, people are interested in your property… they’ll pay half a million for your flat!’ It’s an amazing position to be in. I love renting! I wanted just to ask, what is the future of the co-op or do you think.. firstly lets split it down. Do you think there are any immediate threats to the co-op from either Governmental policy or the Housing Trust?

GB: Well I’m not aware of any.. I suppose we’re all conscious of the fact that we live in a very desirable part of town now and as you just said, the properties are worth millions. Its entirely possible that the housing trust might terminate the management agreement that we have. I think most of us, i think all of us actually have probably got rights as tenants, so I don’t think they can just chuck us out.

SM: There’s two different rights systems apparently, there’s Secure and Assured Tenancy. Can you explain the differences to me?

GB: I did know, there are differences. Certainly Assured tenancies are less secure than Secured tenancies but I can’t remember what the exact difference is. There’s certainly nothing in the tenancy agreement, which explains the difference. The wording is pretty much identical although that may well be because I think our actual tenancy documents are a bit old and out of date. I did remember about 10 years ago the Trust produced new tenancy documents and said you should get all your tenants to sign new tenancies, everybody was totally hostile to it.

GB: W11 Co-op is a management coop, we don’t actually own any of our houses but we have a management agreement with the Trust, which says that we retain a portion of the rent for maintenance and for management and we give a fixed sum to the Trust. We’ve had an argument with the Trust based on the fact that because we’ve had all these houses for more than 30 years, and we assume that the normal mortgage would be for 25 years, we’ve actually paid for these houses and perhaps they should give them to us!

SM: That’s really interesting

GB: But they wouldn’t wear that. So okay we’re still a management co-op, we do have certain deals with the Trust and there are certain procedures, the person who lived in A flat in All Saints Road originally was wanting to start a family and we didn’t have any 2 bedroom flats so she swapped into a Trust flat somewhere in Oxford Gardens. Our deal previously had been that every other vacancy arising through swaps would give us the right to nominate someone for the first one but for the second one the Trust would nominate someone. So basically the trust took someone off the council waiting list and the whole thing was very badly managed, we had informally been told that while we couldn’t vet the person that they were gong to give to us we could at least meet them first and explain what our coop was and what they were getting themselves into and make sure they understood what sort of housing they were gong to come into. Rod Freeman and I were prepared to meet this chap but the next thing we knew was that he had been given the keys and moved in, so they reneged on their deal

Okay, we do seem to have a fairly high proportion of problem tenants, people for whatever reason are socially inadequate or whatever, I suppose in a small community also you’re going get arguments between neighbors. That’s another thing we try to muddle through and sort of deal with peoples problems, so again we are a little bit more than just a housing management outfit we are something of a community

GB: Again, I don’t know if it’s as you say: just an accident, but we have had our fair share of eccentrics in the co-op. I would think the most likely scenario for the future is that the Co-op will carry on pretty much as we are at the moment and any vacancies that will sadly arise are probably because people will have popped their clogs. If Tony is serious about moving out then we believe that will offer a vacancy. The scheme that Kiran seems to have discovered doesn’t seem to have any quid pro quo, it doesn’t look like we have to take somebody of the list, although I don’t know for sure. Its not terribly clear from the website although it does seem to suggest that if you live in social housing and you want to move to somewhere by the sea or countryside then you can but there may well be stakes. It looks like we’ll carry on as we are. Sadly for those people on the waiting list it looks like once every 4 or 5 years we might get a vacancy. When the labour government came in in ’97 we had, well I had, high hopes. Just before the election I’d been to a conference organised by the National Federation of Coops which was addressed by Nick Raynsford who was a labour MP, at the time he was shadow housing minister and he stated his intention of introducing a housing act which would relate to housing co-ops making it easier to set up coops. When Labour came in of course he was shifted to some other job and Labour just carried on Thatcher’s old policies as far as I can tell, which is really depressing. Of course there’s no way that Cameron or Clegg are going to reform housing in any sensible way, they’re just not building social housing at all. I mean for all his talk about the big society and voluntary organisations I’ve seen no clue whatsoever that he intends to do anything for social housing generally, or Coops at all, so we shall see.

After the riots of the early ’80s we had Heseltine stepping in, as far as I can make out it caused him to change his mind and he actually initiated programmes to try and rebuild inner cities.

GB: That is another contribution the co-op has made to our community. The anti poll-tax group was centered on the Coop. It was Brian Nichols and myself who mostly set it up. We burnt our poll tax cards in Powis Square, Joe Strummer gave me his card to burn and out of that we started a little newspaper called ‘Community Recharge’ which was Brian and Mark Beasley and I. Tony contributed to it and a number of people in the co-op contributed. We used to distribute it about every 2 months I think. It lasted for about 4 years.

SM: Do you think there’s any opportunity for doing something like that again?

GB: Yeah I don’t see why not. The reason it was viable was that I had a friend who was a printer who used to do it as a favour very cheap. So we just used to raise 50 quid per issue and we did that partly by getting people to pay for ads. Ninon’s bike workshop and various other local businesses, Alchemy in Portobello Road, they used to pay £5 for an advert. The first issues were literally cow gum and paper but then I started word processing it and I used a desktop publishing programme so the later issues were a lot slicker than the first ones.

SM: and it would be even easier to do

GB: All you need is a photocopier, which does A3.

SM: And a creasing machine, you hardly need staples these days

GB: You don’t need staples at all, it was just an A3 sheet folded in half and if you had loads of stuff maybe we’d slip in an extra page in the middle. Obviously it had a political style but it had a creative side as well, with Tony involved and Mark Beasley was very good at writing funny articles, yeah we could do it again.

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GB: The trust have their standard approach to decorating their properties, it’s totally bland you know, sort of magnolia. When we started painting out houses bright colours they were very dubious and I remember it was quite a while ago when we were renegotiating the management agreement, they wanted to take over maintenance and I remember saying in a meeting no we want to carry on doing the maintenance because you’re rubbish and we’re good at it, and anyway we don’t want you painting the houses magnolia and off-white so they conceded to that!

SM: There are two door colours they use; they do the standard royal blue or a kind of ox-blood red

GB: And I don’t know if its still true but you can always tell a trust property cause they always have the same shaped letterbox

SM: Oh absolutely, always bought from the same supply

GB: But these houses are now famous all over Europe, people come specially to take a photo of them

SM: Just like Bath, the Royal Crescent

GB: Oh yeah, but much better though

GB: All we need now is a Jane Austen to write us up and then we’ll really have a legacy!

GB: And of course when I moved in here, they were horrified that I wanted the whole place painted black. Yeah, I mean I had gone a little bit over the top and of course when Lily moved in she said I don’t want my room black, I want it pink. Well now you see it’s modified, only the front room is black but the rest of it is different colours, because when Carla moved into Lily’s old room she straight away painted it black and purple!

So, what do you think?

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