This was the brainchild of TACT and was hammered out by him, throwing his ideas at me, in, would you believe, caravans at Bungay and Lowestoft. Jean and I were on holiday in my daughter Marie’s caravan at Lowestoft and Joan and Trevor were in their caravan at Bungay. We had travelled down on the Saturday and run into swarms of flies, cars were breaking down everywhere as the flies blocked the radiators causing the engines to overheat. On the sea front ice cream sellers had to stop selling as cornets were smothered in flies as soon as they were bought. TACT and Joan came over to see us on the Monday and while Jean and Joan chatted together he and I started, over a bottle of Scotch, to discuss the Care Team. On Tuesday Jean and I went to see them at Bungay and, with another bottle of Scotch, in the caravan, carried on our discussion. Jean and Joan did their chatting in the Awning. Wednesday at Lowestoft and Thursday at Bungay were repeats of Monday and Tuesday except that we were now getting things down on paper. We did give our wives attention in the evenings but they were absolute bricks to put up with us. On Friday Jean and I kept away from the Thompsons, so they had at least one days holiday and so did we. On Monday back in Letchworth, the draft of our Scotch aided notes were typed up, taken by TACT to Committee on Tuesday evening and we were in business. We were to have a Care-team, one of the first, if not the first local authority in the country to take this step. We appointed a qualified nurse, Judy Nichols to head the team and two women Carers. These girls did wonderful work caring for the needy elderly in our sheltered housing schemes and it was not long before we had to recruit more staff.
Never one to stand still, TACT decided it was time to improve the services to elderly tenants by providing an Alarm System. To facilitate this he took the management of sheltered schemes away from Area offices and put them under me in Special Management. The idea was to install electronic equipment in every flat, linked to a control centre enabling two way speech contact. The control centre to be manned 24 hours a day 365 days a year. Part of the funding for it was achieved by gradually phasing out ‘Deputy Wardens’, the system taking over when the warden was off duty. Mr Clifford the Assistant Hsg. Mgr. and I investigated a number of different systems, eventually deciding on Tunstall Telecom and this was set up, one little unit on my desk in Town Hall, Letchworth, connected to 39 flats in The Tene, Baldock. The first emergency call came from The Tene when the warden was off duty. I was alone in the office and had no alternative but to shut down the system and go to Baldock to answer the call. Thankfully it was a false call but it served its purpose by making us realise that we were not fully prepared. When more units were connected to the system the unit was moved to a converted wardens flat at Peter Sell House, a sheltered housing scheme in Hitchin with the idea of having the resident warden operating it. This was not successful, the number of calls coming in being far more than we had anticipated and as we intended to provide a 24-hour service it was essential to recruit more staff. As a temporary measure deputy wardens, whose jobs were being phased out by the new system and had joined the Care Team took over the running of it. Beryl Eaves and June Jefferies did a grand job but they were the more of a caring nature that preferred to work direct with tenants rather than talking to telephones. Later these same two girls were the first to volunteer to drive our bus, again doing a wonderful job. I often wonder how we managed to get staff to work as they did, their wages being so much lower than workers in other occupations. We were also fortunate to recruit a good manager in Ed Tassell, completely dedicated to the job he did much to foster the teamwork which was essential. As the number of connections increased we converted two carports at Peter Sell House to accommodate all the extra staff and equipment needed. To try to defray some of the cost of the control centre it was decided to offer the service to other authorities and so I now became involved in selling the control system to other local authorities and housing associations. TACT made approaches to councils and associations and I did a lot of the demonstrating the equipment and the service we could offer. We became quite famous and had visitors from all over the country and even one group from Rotterdam in Holland. We also became the first L.A. to provide the service to a Housing Association and I like to think this was a personal feather in my cap. In my voluntary work as a Welfare Officer for Royal Air Forces Association I had come into contact with Air-Vice Marshal Johnson, the famous World War 2 fighter pilot, who had formed a housing association the ‘Johnnie’Johnson Housing Trust and had taken on the management of his Sheltered Scheme in Codicote. To do this I had had to resign my welfare position with RAFA, I felt there was only so much that Jean could stand. Having said that, ‘The Bury’ at Codicote gave both of us much pleasure as Jean was able to take part in many of the activities there.
I also had to get special permission from the Council to do the voluntary job of Manager at The Bury for the ‘Johnnie’Johnson Housing Trust as it could sometimes clash with my ‘day job’. This was given and I was able to carry out the duties of both jobs without too many problems. Sir Douglas Bader performed the official opening ceremony and I was inundated with requests from councillors and senior council officers who wished to attend and be able to meet with the two famous WW2 fighter pilots. Johnnie and Sir Douglas chatting over ‘old times
When I retired some nine years later in 1986, the Control Centre had 15,000 connections covering parts of East Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex in addition to our own North Hertfordshire. In 2002 the Care Line as it is now known is in a purpose built building and has well over 20,000 connections. Deputy wardens of Sheltered Schemes were gradually phased out (without anyone being made redundant), care assistants and the alarm system providing a much more efficient service to our elderly residents. Having said that it was not all that easy to persuade all tenants or staff that it was for the best, proving again people do not welcome change. When The Bury was connected to the system I had problems as we didn’t have a Care Team with the association and council staff could only attend council resident emergencies. Having said that I was helped often by one member of the Care Team who answered Bury calls when she was off duty from the council. Otherwise if there was a call to the centre, when ‘The Bury’ warden was off duty, I was called to deal with it, and made numerous night and early morning trips to Codicote, a number of them being false alarms. The Board of Management of JJHT were so impressed by our system they eventually copied us, set up their own system in Manchester and are currently providing the service to other housing associations and private residents in the north. I am glad they waited until I had retired before they did so.
While I was managing The Bury, the Trust decided to develop further by building 12 bungalows in co-operation with North Herts Council and I was deeply involved in this. Additionally I was asked to put forward a suggestion to do something about an old two-storied workshop. Thinking it might be possible to convert this building into a flat with two garages underneath I invited my friend Alan Ashling and his wife out for a drink with Jean and I one Saturday evening. I picked them up and making some excuse called in at The Bury on our way to Stevenage where we were going for our drink. At The Bury I casually mentioned my idea regarding the old workshop, Alan was immediately interested and with a pencil stub designed the conversion on a cigarette packet, I have often heard people use the remark ‘designed on a fag packet’, this really was. Alan’s design with only a couple of very minor alterations was drafted, accepted by the council and building work started within weeks. With available grants the Trust got a 2 bedroom flat for approximately £2,500, the best bargain they ever had. This was also good for me as I was allowed to let it to my daughter Marie, who was desperately in need of accommodation at the time. I say allowed because although I had carte blanche on all lettings at The Bury it is never wise to leave oneself open to the charge of nepotism. I was accused of this some time later when arranging a painting contract. I had mentioned to my niece’s husband Bill that I had been offered rough verbal estimates of £10,000 to do the work and he asked if he could quote. To make sure I rang head office, explained the relationship and was told “provided there are sealed tenders and a good job is done there cannot possibly be any criticism” Bill quoted £6,000 the nearest other quote being £9,500 and despite having to bring his workmen down from Oldham and pay lodgings in Codicote, did a good job and was very satisfied with the remuneration. Three years later he won the contract again and again everything was approved. However when the next painting was due new management was in force at Head Office and my policy of asking a relative to quote was considered unethical. I had held a very good relationship with Johnnie Johnson and enjoyed working with the Trust but all good things come to an end. The new rules and regulations coming from new head office staff who all seemed to be trying to create their own little empires, coupled with the problem of Jean becoming very dependent on me was worrying and so I decided to call it a day.
Copyright Eric Fitton © 2008 page last updated 18/02/2011 17:02