Tamar Davies – Interview

“Importantly, it was never banner-waving, badge-wearing stuff, it really was kitchens, families and kids”

Tamar Davies: The wonderful the thing about the coop is that my mum was part of the founding members she was a single mother with 2 children and the coops primary aim at that point was to house people who couldn’t be housed

SM: single people

TD:  Single people, my mum was a group of five or six women who had children and I was one of the oldest in fact I think I was the eldest. It took something like 7 years of formulating the initial ideas with the key group to get housed, but once I get to 15 and curious enough to join; I started attending the meeting, even though I wasn’t old enough

SM: So your mum was housed for 4 years before you joined the coop

TD:  We were housed as family in 1979 but in order to be housed in 1979 we started attending meetings in 1975 but prior to 75 there was alto of pro-activity in the area to try and have coffee mornings with Anna Malcolm and someone called Jason. Key people in the 70s who work in the voluntary sector in the law centre who recognise there were potentially some houses available to house a collective a lot of us my parent’s generation were part of the left wing arts liberal community of the area. We all… they all came to London because of politics and arts moved into Powis Square many of us were living in Powis Square prior to living in the co-op so much of my childhood was spent in the streets of Powis square and the Tabernacle and a lot of the meetings were happening in our kitchens so it was very empowering as a kid to feel that you were part of something that was potentially a group of friends getting together and we could all be housed together.

SM:  So you really felt that as a child you felt a culture and a community around you

TD: Absolutely it was very exciting; there was a real spirit of solidarity. Anna Malcolm in particular, with my mum, was proactive in making sure that we all felt we had the opportunity and the kids all consequently grew up knowing that we were part of this

SM:  So…empowering indeed

TD:  Yes, very empowering and what was really exhilarating was when they showed us the house that they were going to give us it took 2 years then to renovate the house because it was a tumbledown. So we knew in advance which house my mum and my brother were going to live in, which was number 2 Lancaster Road which was a particularly lovely house with a big garden. And the key thing was tough that at a young age I realised this sense of there being a group, like if people got together a s groups and decided they wanted to do something they could make things happen, so I learnt that at a very young age. Going to the co-op meetings between the ages of 15 and 18, although I couldn’t become a member, at 18 I got my certificate of membership but prior to that I just came along and everyone used to hang out in each other’s back pockets, it was lovely.

SM:  Talking about Certificates of Membership that reminds me of yesterday when I was saw Tony and he actually brought his share certificate with the red stamp on

TD: I’ve lost mine

SM: I never received one but I finally got housed in 94 so…a latecomer really

TD: So we were housed as a family in 79 at number 2. We had the maisonette. There were 4 families that had maisonettes, there was Wendy, Anna, Roger and Milena, and so they were the 4 houses. There were other families that came along later, you being one of them, but that was the initial core family group. The rest had 2 bedroom family units, like Geoff Branch, Melinda and people had kids later but the wonderful thing was because I went to Holland Park school, Colville school, I went to all the local schools, you grew up on the streets of Portobello and you felt part of the community and the ethos of the co-op was to generate this sense of home. At one point we had some romantic belief system that we could knock all of the walls of the garden together and have a cooperative garden, we would have a cooperative laundry room where we had stockpiled washing liquid and loo rolls.

SM: The Co- op stores!

TD: It was really going to be the hippy dream. If we bulk bought then everything would be cheaper and we would all be good friends, but in fact that never happened. So the dream of all being mates meant that we got houses but actually the proactive, cooperativeness thing didn’t once we got houses

SM: Ok, so talk a bit about that.

TD: I think inevitably in any community people will gather together with the people they like. You can’t enforce liking people, so the people who had a common bond stayed friends and the people who didn’t, didn’t. People split up, a lot of people bust up in the early days…being split families and all sorts of histories. What was interesting for the kids was that we grew up feeling a sense of ownership of the streets, the houses, confident at night, playing on the street, knowing that we were always safe. That was a really important thing and we saw some amazing periods of time in the 70s and 80s where the area was fragile in that the race riots were still happening, the National Front were still around. For those of us who went to the local schools obviously we were frontline children we experienced those events. Often when the police would turn up en masse, late at night, arresting people here there  and everywhere, and not necessarily the right people. One instance I was in court in Marylebone road defending one of the co-op members, Wendy Craig, she got arrested because she was walking home, so helped get her off from obstructing the police.

SM: Other co-op members, who will remain nameless, have mentioned being arrested in the Apollo for having a meeting because white people did not go into the Apollo unless they were dealing drugs or buying drugs and it took the police a long time to believe that they actually lived next door and still said, “Why do you come to this pub? It is a black pub”. So these little divisions, this W11 apartheid was happening and in the middle of this you’ve got this community. I’m interested in the dynamic of it, cos they were borne together out of the necessity to be housed, although you wouldn’t think this now with the high level value estate agents (Foxtons) put on these places. These places were run down, pretty crap.

TD: Well the ownership was Notting Hill Housing Trust, our managing landlord…their housing stock was massive. There were a lot of unhorsed people who needed homes so we were housed here. A lot of the historical importance of All Saints Road, which is the junction of our co-op demographic, we got 8 houses in Lancaster Road, 2 in All Saints Road meant that we knew a lot of the old timers, a lot of the Caribbean families and we all went to school with their kids, so we were part of the community and are still; that sense of it being not so much apartheid but essentially part of the North Kensington sense of home for a mixed race environment. Importantly, it was never banner-waving, badge-wearing stuff, it really was kitchens and families and kids and that was what was important for Anna and people like my mum. It wasn’t necessarily politics, just living and surviving all in the same environment, economically.

SM: And shot through all of this was a strong management system.

TD: In essence yes there was, but not necessarily. It grew into a management system; we learnt how to do it. People brought their relative skills. There were lots of people who worked at the Law Centre and knew the kind of system of having a treasurer, secretary taking minutes creating sub-committees but a lot of the mums didn’t there wasn’t necessarily transferable skills, it was more realism. How do you make sure you get the right number of rooms for a family? So, we did have a say in how the houses were constructed and converted, so we put in our requests and often the architects would negotiate with people what do you need, how many units do you need? We were instrumental in that as well.

SM: I guess the people who had been politically active before the co-ops started to liftoff had that sense of meeting and organisation and how to run a meeting so these different skills got taught and eked out. Other people had to learn real skills. I always remember if I’m talking to people about the co-op and they say, “Oh, you live in Lancaster road, you must be rich”, which I guffaw at. What was interesting to me was that we couldn’t follow through on the notion of our own maintenance to exact standards because we need to tender out to get things done, which is a shame. We have a couple of builders in the co-op, but we can’t be seen to be self-serving.

TD: I think that’s what happened is we are obliged by law to uphold the property. I think the management agreement that’s been put in place gets reviewed every few years by NHHT. I think because of the legality of the insurance process including builders insurance, it is better to employ builders from outside of the co-op than people within the co- op because of the fairness of what we are doing. We maintain properties for other people who own this house so we can’t all be paying each other 1000s of pounds to paint the front of the house. It’s a very straightforward transaction, but importantly what we have had had though is the chance to make decisions in the quality of the maintenance and renovations so that we actually, compared to other NHHT tenants get to enjoy our liberty of how we paint them and how we maintain the insides.

SM: It’s been often said that our cyclical maintenance is much better than the Trusts

TD: Our management system is we have learnt to do it well and consequently key people have kept their jobs and their roles…significantly, they have got tired of it and wanted to hand it to other people, train other people up. They do it so well that the key roles: treasurers, secretaries, have been passed round but come back to the same people and that’s an interesting point for the future because what we might have to do is thinking about people retiring or moving soon because people are in their 60s now and that sense of role and responsibility needs to be handed on. So that’s an important part of what we are looking at for our future. In terms of what I’ve done, I’ve been treasurer, secretary, maintenance convenor and for about 2 or 3 years I was the improvements convenor so i got to help renovate all the kitchens and bathrooms on a 2 or 3 year programme which was really enjoyable because after nearly 30 years of being here I could input into the homes positively. That was a really nice role and I will probably be going back to that soon. What’s really interesting is that we are in social sector housing, the cost of renting that house now is relative to one of these properties is amazing, we are sitting pretty. We pay our rents of £85 per week when other people have had to spend 3 ½ million for a house.

SM: In Britain after Thatcher, nobody considered renting anymore, everybody had to get on the mortgage ladder.

TD:  We’ve done really well to stay where we are.

SM: So this brings us neatly to the wider context of the cooperative. I love this notion of Big Society, its ironic as it seems that we have already been practising that.

TD: The voluntary sector in the 70s was a consequent of the 50s and 60s, people didn’t just march or have riots, we actually put in place frameworks that were supporting many parts of the community and a lot of my mum’s generation were part of that process and the benefits of growing up with that means that I have been involved in the community in a way that impacts on the things I do in my career. I am now a teacher in the local college, prior to that I was setting up voluntary sector self funded projects for RBKC, because I knew all of the community centres, the youth centres, knew all the families that worked there, made sure there were always art projects in the borough. My ethos of being comes from having grown up within the co-op, so I feel very proactively part of the community.

SM: Its become your life hasn’t it?

TD: And in a wonderful way I feel quite piratic as I can always set something up and I feel the co-op has given me those skills. I like to problem solve and the co-ops always given me that strength. I’m always outside of the box; I never feel I have to be in the box. I always feel I can make something happen, be dynamic.

SM: It goes back to that empowerment feeling you felt at 15.

TD: Exactly, so I never have to work within a system, I can look outside and think yes that needs doing so I’ll do it.  A positive impact and making a move and also socially we are a group. People can get together and proactively see that something is worth doing and be supported

SM: What about the impossible expansion of the co-op. If I was an outsider looking at this I would say, “You are really lucky people, despite all the work that has gone in to make it so”. To play devil’s advocate you get someone who would go, “For Christ’s sake, you are really lucky, middle class, which is ironic considering most of our upbringings, but they would say, “Middle class, lefties, sitting pretty in this flat…

TD: They have no idea… the responsibility…by no means would I say that my mum’s generation were middle class. They were working class, came from somewhere else, and came to London in the 60s. Had their children, realised that renting privately in single rooms…my mum and Anna lived in 2 rooms with kitchenettes and a toilet, they lived like that: my mum, me and my brother in 1 room. Anna, with her first child Chris Malcolm, we lived like that in Powis Square for 3 years, so my childhood was going on marches to K and C town hall to open Powis Square so we could have somewhere to play. This was not middle class; the fact that it looks middle class now is circumstantial

SM: It’s to do with the perception of this area as well

TD: It’s the impact of social mobility to a certain extent, because the north/ south divide of the borough is encroaching on what is our heritage. I don’t have a problem with the encroachment because I think enough of the infrastructure of who we all are is here. If we’d all had to move then it would have been tragic. NHHT are not housing people anymore, It takes people dying or being very ill to vacate a property, so the stagnation of the housing programme is the problem, had we been in a position to we would have taken on more houses had NHHT had more stock…cos we had to prove ourselves effectively as…we managed to save £150,000 to reinvest in the housing stock that we proved ourselves to be effective caretakers of. We looked after the budgets so if they’d had stock we could have put all the waiting list into the 2 new houses easily and manage that property, but they’ve chosen to sell off that housing stock. They even sold their offices in All Saints Road to make money.

SM: Other members have had theories as to why we are in an economic crash at the moment and that housing in general is going to be really problematic, that it might show a slight rebirth of Notting Hill Housing Trust, there might be houses (that) become vacant round here…

TD: Doubt it, they’ll sell them…NHHT is a landlord that goes out as far as Ruislip…so West London, their demographic is massive. NHHT are not an ungenerous landlord and I think they have a remit to support co-operatives; we’re not the only co-operative they support. They could have closed us, they can rescind our management agreement and we can therefore revert back to being NHHT tenants. At times when the workload of the management committee has been such that we aren’t always ticking over very well, when the meetings aren’t attended very well it’s very frustrating because new people always hope they are going to get housed and I personally think it’s time to look at a waiting list. I don’t think it’s politically correct to have 10 people waiting for housing for 15/ 20 years. The key roles of the secretary, the treasurer, the maintenance convenor, improvements convenor: all these roles need deputies and I think transferable skills, especially after the last meeting I believe we should be offering training to the housed and unhoused members. I think, for instance, people who role up at meetings, who’ve never taken minutes before, should be introduced to how to do it. At the meeting we can help them, so that’s a life skill, so if they go for a job interview (they have) transferable skills. I do feel we are offering more than just housing, we are offering life skills and I think if we shared it better than that would be very inclusive and support the unhoused members. But it takes time and energy, you have to want to be inclusive and I really applaud Geoff Branch who was saying the weighting of housing should be equal: 50% housing need, 50% work done and his premise was that because it was equal then it showed real commitment. I respect his opinion but I still think it should be 60/40 because people are being evicted with children and things like that. Housing need needs to be seen whether someone has been to 10 committee meetings and done minutes.

SM: Yes, my housing need didn’t suddenly just change as soon as I got into ‘short life’. I knew that the long haul of 8 or 9 years was worth it because I could be in the area, my kids could be in the area and I could be engaged in their life a bit more. It is really difficult, it takes a hell of a lot of commitment and time to actually, eventually be housed.

TD: Obviously, as a child of a formative decade, my mum’s long view was massive. With Anna Malcolm, you are talking 10-15 years. That initial 10- 15 years of work paid off and some people are very upset that the old timers don’t come to current general meetings, there is a kind of a bugbear about that. My mum’s opinion s that she put a lot of bloody time in from the early days to set it up, and it wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the old timers who are now in their 70s. The collective spirit was carried forward, the next generation, of which I was part of in the 80s and 90s and that model should be revived because now we are in the process of reviewing our tenancy agreements, with Geoff Branch, I think we are in a position, managerially now, where we are maintaining the ship. The 10 properties need to function, they are Victorian, 1860s. The current maintenance committee is very efficient; the treasurer is very good; the secretary is very good; the improvements committee is functioning really well. Everything functions well. The fact that we have a management agreement where we now have bi-monthly meetings with the management sub-committee and the general meeting, it doesn’t require 100s of people to function so this notion of a new crop of people, what is their social cohesion? How can they create an infrastructure that carries on the ethos of the early co-op and Sesame? If we give them the pointers, will they take the baton up and make it move forward. We can only prompt them. The only problem is, we are in this amazing situation where properties are worth £2,000,000 now so will the trust listen to them? We can support them by writing covering letters and saying, “We have 10 unhoused members, would you have a property we could rent on a short life basis?

SM: I think that has to be done. I think it would be timely to test the waters and see what happens.

TD: Well I think the point is that now we function well. I think people like the status quo, people like the fact that we are slightly removed from the Trust. We function well, we report annually with our accounts. It all goes very nicely, very smoothly. To take on a responsibility of a new house managerially requires overseeing and that means other people, not the unhoused members, but the current housed members doing it and that’s a responsibility that maybe they don’t want to take on.. I do think that it’s about people being empowered and that is my core belief about the co-op. If people who are willing to come to meetings but then don’t want to be pro-active…we can’t make them be proactive.

SM: So, to close…if you could sum up for me…the co-op started, no one knew it was going to last 35 years…what do you think has been the secret of the success?

TD: I think the initial cohesion of people, families and friends, believing that working together to make something happen between each other, against the toughest of odds was what kept everyone working forwards. This belief that we could get something that meant we had a shelter, rather than endless private renting scenario also that we wanted to…we did have a kind of naive, romantic dream of all happily tilling the soil and growing our potatoes and hanging our washing out in a 1940s style back garden, that never really happened although we did try. We grew potatoes and runner beans in our garden…

TD: I think that what’s been lovely is to see everyone flourish. Every person in the co-op has flourished in their own individuality: people’s homes are really interesting to walk into; there’s a lot of arts taking place within the co-op, the dynamic creativity and the fact that we are not isolated, the infrastructure of friends in the street is great: we all know our neighbours, it’s not just the co-op it’s the whole street. It’s been a really effective, serendipitous sequence of events. I don’t think it’s been easy and there has been lots of arguing, lots of meetings with lots of fists on tables, but we are all still talking to each other…just about!

So, what do you think?

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