Tony Bennett – Interview

“I lived in a commune in Wales where we were milking chickens, growing cows and maintaining many personal relationships. It was hard work!”

I’ve lived in this North Kensington, Ladbroke Grove, Portobello Road area – whatever you want to call it – since early 1976 when I was a squatter in Tavistock Crescent, then all the houses got knocked down there. I had become a single parent with two young kids so I went and begged at the Councils’ door and got housed in Bassett Road, the other side of Ladbroke Grove for a while. I met a woman with two kids as well so we didn’t have enough room there. We then managed to get hold of an early 80’s Notting Hill Housing Trust property on Westbourne Park Road where I lived for quite a number of years. When I split up with my partner I had to leave the area for a while and moved up to Harlesden/Willesden area in the private sector, which was very different from living round here for sure.
Having known the people in the Co-op for years and years I decided to join and started going to meetings as most people do, the process of how you get housed. I weaseled my way into doing lots of various jobs for the Co-op to get points, and eventually got housed.

I’ve always believed in Co-ops, I worked in a Free School, in Brighton teaching Art and I’ve been in Food Co-ops organizing those. So I’ve always liked the whole Co-op ideal so I’m delighted to have eventually, in December 2010 to have been housed by the Co-op. Its an enormous relief when you get housed, you realise ‘Oh I haven’t got to go round and look for anywhere again.” You pay a fixed reasonable rent, not as cheap anymore as some of the older properties in the Co-op, you feel rejuvenated, more relaxed, your whole life improves by having a place that you can do what you like to, that is self managing. As to the future of Co-ops I don’t know. To the future of Housing Association in general well, it may be in ten years, after a succession of right wing governments they may decide to sell off all Housing Association properties or rather do a ‘Right to Buy’ on all of them and move people out. The Housing Association as far as I’m aware doesn’t really like Co-ops; they’re stuck with them because the early associations and Co-ops are what made the whole thing happen in the first place. In some senses though as long as the rent is getting paid to them from their subsidiary Co-ops and they don’t have to do anything to maintain and manage them, then it’d probably easier for them. They’re caught with us, they’re a large organsiation with 12’000 properties or so and they like to have control, they don’t like people telling them, ‘well, were doing it our way’.

Steve Mepsted: You mentioned that you had held a series of positions within the Co-op along the way, what were they?

TB: I sat on the Maintenance Committee for the last five years, for the last seven or eight years I have organised and taken the minutes at General and Maintenance Meetings. Doing work for the Co-op is what helps you get housed, but it’s also because it helps to be a part of the Co-op too, and I quite like it! I don’t mind typing up minutes and booking meeting rooms and so on.

SM: When you talk to people about the Co-op and how and where you live, do they get it?

TB: Some do some don’t, there are even people in the Co-op who don’t get it! There are some people in the Co-op who don’t know how lucky they are. To organise a general meeting we need ten people to have a quorate meeting, until last year we were having eight meetings a year and we rarely got a quorate meeting out of the fifty members despite me writing rude notes round to peoples houses saying that they only need to come twice a year. We’ve dropped the meetings to four a year now and formed a ‘Management Committee’ so that we can make decisions and move forward. However even with four meetings a year it’s hard to get ten people to a meeting.

SM: Why do you think that might be?

TB: Part of it is history where people have gone to meetings where there were serious arguments; some people have done lots of work for the Co-op in the past and feel they have done their bit for a while. Others just do not like people.

SM: So the personal and organisational politics have become intertwined so one can sometimes not separate them and do effective business?

TB: I do think its essential to realise that we are not a family. We don’t necessarily have to have those kinds of relationships. What we have in common is property, somewhere to live, we don’t have to live in each other’s pockets though, have sexual or emotional relationships with each other, though some people do. One needs to divorce oneself from say, not liking Susan in number whatever and get on with the business, some are not able to do that, not able to separate those things off.

SM: Yes, it true that when I explain what the Co-op is people immediately think it’s a community of sandal wearing, tree hugging, yoghurt weaving hippies all in harmony with each other. That’s false of course, just like it’s not true with any group of people who are made close by an organisation. The wider notions of the Co-op, swapping skills etc.… may be a founding principle but business has to be conducted and so the Co-op has had to form a management committee to do that and form smaller sub committees too.

TB: Yes, its almost moved the other way, not like a lets system whereby people are swapping skills all the time…“You cut my hair and I’ll kill your cow”…We have moved further away from that – there is now a situation whereby we cannot employ people within the Co-op to do paid work as it creates bad feeling.

SM: Well, forgetting founding principles for a moment, is the Co-op best run by the Co-op or should it rely on help?

TB: The administration is best run by the Co-op as we know what we need, there volunteer expenses paid for some jobs, some people don’t even want them, they just do it anyhow as it’s a token amount of money anyway. For people like the Maintenance Convener or Treasurer where there is a lot of skilled work and decision-making they get considerably more money. If you had the skills and were able to repair something by yourself then you could get the expenses for materials and possibly some of the labour.

SM: It took you ten years to get housed. We have 50 members of whom a portion are un housed members and more people knocking on the door. Is it feasible to be swelling the ranks of the membership when we cannot realistically house people within any reasonable amount of time?

TB: Its essential to get new people into the Co-op otherwise you end up with white haired old men like me! The average age of the Co-op is extremely high. People are dying off. Within the next ten or fifteen years a lot of the original members of the Co-0p will not be with us anymore, so yes we do need more people, and younger people. On the other hand there is a long wait. There is talk of keeping the list at a maximum of 50 people and discouraging people from joining. When people do come along to General Meetings, new applicants, they sit there with people saying “well don’t know what you’re here for mate …chances of you getting housed are slim’. Well its true that people are attracted to the Co-op as they feel it’s an easy way to get housed. Well its not! It’s a long haul. We have a points system which stops people voting based on their friendships or personalities. The system quantifies how long a person had been in the Co-op, meetings attended, work done for the Co-op and housing need. However a problem is there aren’t enough jobs within the Co-op for people to do in order to get points, unless the people who hold those jobs give them up. Also we have a fundamental structural problem in that we only manage 34 units in ten houses. If we had more the problem would be a lot more easily solved, things would move much more quickly. We have at the moment seven unhoused members and we can’t do anything.

SM: So the Co-op is locked in, as it were, not really able to fulfill the need of unhoused members.

TB: Well yes, however there are younger members getting housed which is good. All the seven applicants are under 40 and one is about to be housed. I had a fantasy the other day that if I won the lottery I would buy a couple of houses to expand the Co-op to house some people. When I moved into the area it was the people in Short life housing and the squatters who maintained a lot of property around here, that’s kind of gone now and we don’t have the same community that is possible with alternative living. I lived in a commune in Wales where we were publishing and printing books and milking chickens and growing cows and maintaining many personal relationships. It was hard actually. Here we have a great thing where we can shut our front doors, you can have as much to do with the Co-op as you wish or as little and you’ve got your own space and are independent in that sense. It’s the best of both worlds.

We might be able to expand somewhere else and buy property even further away; in our age of Internet communication we could do video meetings and make faces at each other that way. A lot of people are attracted to the Co-op though because of the West Eleven area. We have other Co-ops around, Portobello Co-op, Bramley, Seagull and W 12 but the thing that holds true is that you have to be really tenacious. There is a young woman on the un-housed list who has been a member now for six years and she’s been to lots of meetings and has asked what she can do – she will sit on the next allocations committee and she has stuck to it, she’s living on someone else’s place on Lancaster Road and most of the time you don’t know with people how well they are connected with the area. It was easy for me as I had a warehouse in Acklam Road underneath the motorway for 20 years, I worked in Kensal Road before that and I’ve had a market stall. I can prove easily that I have huge connections with the area. I’ve put on loads of gigs with Tony Allen around the area for 30 years so all that’s easy. Other people say well I’ve got some address where I may or not be staying.

SM: Do you think that there may be better ways of communicating with new members? It is difficult to understand what’s going on at the meeting if you are new; there is a new language to be learned.

TB: One of our members has produced some information for new members and it’s good. Another member has set up a blog/website to attract comments and to archive minutes, post news etc.

SM: So what do you think ‘belonging to the Co-op” means?

TB: Well it means some control over ones life, as much as we have any control, it enables one to do things with regards to other people, we are ‘herd’ animals after all and we live in the middle of a city so its good to learn to get on with people to an extent or to at least have some compromises to make. It’s also good to be able to make decisions with another group of people that have an impact on your life and lives. Without getting too airy-fairy I think it is a positive contribution to ones well being. Co-operatives are great! Co-operative shops for example, most of our farms in the UK apart from some of the huge agribusiness ones are Co-ops, that’s how farmers work, it works better for them to be working as a Co-op, partly just in terms of economies of scale. There are great principles of Co-ops that can work really well, and importantly, it doesn’t need government or someone on top of you to tell you what to do. You’re doing it between you, and you have to agree it.

So, what do you think?

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