Letchworth Urban District Council
By Eric Fitton
 

 

This was a completely new position, so my performance could not be compared with anyone as no one had ever done the job before but neither could I get much help, for the same reason.  A big problem for me, was that a number of existing employees had applied for the job and resented an outsider being appointed, especially as I had no previous local government experience.  However I muddled through and managed to get a desk in a stairwell to serve as my office.  The next step was to publicise this new venture of the council and a number of public meetings were organised at which I had to appear.  The first was at a local school and scheduled to start at 7.30pm, so feeling very nervous, not knowing what to expect, I turned up at 7pm to find a queue of 6 people waiting for the doors to open.  Inside the assembly hall was arranged to seat 200, with a table and two seats on the stage for the chairman of the Housing Committee and myself.  At 7.15 the doors were opened to admit the expected crowd, that by now must have assembled, only to find, the faithful 6.  They were our only audience.  Three further meetings had been arranged at other schools in the town, again with similar turnout of council tenants.  At the Wilbury school, which was close to where I lived, I coerced family, friends and neighbours to attend but even so the attendance was very disappointing. 

t didn’t take very long to get the service working and although I was very busy in the initial stages the work load soon eased off and I found I was able to cope with all the weekly business in about 4 or 5 hours per week.  My worst experience in my new job was caused by trying to be too helpful while not knowing enough about it.  I advised a recently widowed tenant, who was on rebate jointly with her late husband, to make a fresh application in her sole name.  Obviously with less income but still the same rent to pay, she would be entitled to a larger rebate. Unfortunately it didn’t work like that, the poor lady finished up with less rebate and so had to pay more instead of less rent. 

I began to offer to help out others in the department who had, in some cases, more work than they could cope with, this helped to integrate me and clear most of the original hostility but I was still referred to by some as ‘that jumped up factory worker’. I did relief rent collection (office and door-to-door), house inspections and, as I became more familiar with the work and responsibilities of the housing department, tenant interviews.

Rent collection at the main office was a very easy, in fact cushy duty. I had to stand behind a very high, wide counter, receive rents and mark the tenants rent cards appropriately.  It was explained to me that the height and width of the counter was a crime prevention measure, making it difficult for anyone to reach or jump over and grab money.  A high stool was provided for me to use during slack periods.  The first time I used this I noticed a long wooden bar below the counter, obviously a footrest and naturally I rested my feet on it.  Unfortunately I had not been informed that this was another part of the crime prevention system and connected directly to the police station.  So while sitting comfortably on my stool with my feet on the footrest I was surprised to find two policemen coming through the door.  They were both rookie cops, very apprehensive and quite relieved when it turned out to be a false alarm.  At the end of the day when doors were shut the books had to be balanced (to a penny) and no one went home until they tallied. 

Estate office collection was very similar but these offices had counter to ceiling screens for protection, with a lockable door at the side of the counter.  Money was collected at intervals from these estate offices to be brought back to the Town Hall by members of the housing staff and I did this duty on a number of occasions.  As there was no back door, the procedure was to go through the one at the side of the counter and, in the back of the office, wrap some £3,000 or £4,000 in an old newspaper and walk out through queuing tenants as if you had some old rubbish to dispose of.  One day while walking through the considerable number of tenants waiting to pay at the counter one of the cashiers called out “ Eric, there’s some more here” and he was holding in full view of all and sundry a big handful of bank notes.  The looks on the faces of some of the people waiting to pay their rents made me very wary on future visits.

Door to door collection was the most enjoyable.  In one estate, at a corner of the street, the collector would walk in the front door which was never locked and there was never any one at home.  On the stairs just inside the door would be the rent book, money and a sweet.  The book would be marked up, change left and the sweet picked up.  The collector then walked through the house, out of the back door and so to his next call in the next street.  The tenants had worked it out that this saved the poor old rent man’s footsteps.  On the larger estates we still did door to door collection even though there were estate offices and the collector on one of these was really brilliant.  He was one of the few who had accepted me from the beginning and was most helpful.  Covering for him was a pleasure.  The first time I did so he provided me with a list which gave me;

  • Cleanest houses, in case I needed to ask to use a toilet.

  • Who made the best coffee.

  • Who had a telephone (not many houses had them in those days and there were no mobiles).

  • Best places to re-arrange the money you were carrying.

  • Then ‘take care-- don’t enter’.  Either very dirty, or housewife ‘too friendly’

The policy of the collectors was to secret money about their person, the idea being, if they ‘got done’, robber would get the shoulder bag, with the money, the collector would get to keep the cash in his pockets and the insurance would pay up the lot for the council.  As no one ever ‘got done’ during my time I never found out if it would have worked. My very first collection round was on a new estate, a part of the town with which I was not familiar, I decided to hide bundles of notes in my car.  Placing them under the seat, in the glove pocket and in the boot.  I then locked the car, left it and carried on collecting on foot.  After a while I decided to return to the car but could not find it. I did eventually locate it but had nightmares for some time afterwards and never left my car out of sight on future rounds. In to-days security conscious times, door to door collection has been stopped as it is considered to be too dangerous, collection of bulk money from estate offices is by Security men travelling in armoured vehicles and wearing helmets.

Chasing rent arrears was not an enjoyable job but I helped out with that as well. One day with a list of six tenants to contact I decided to have a pie and a pint lunch at the pub on the estate.  At the side of the dart board in the bar was a list of eight people who were going on a Darts Match outing.  All six of my debtors were on that list.  Obviously paying rent was not a priority when compared to a boozy night out.

Another rent arrears case was one of the council’s employees, a dustman whom I had to interview, to try to get him to mend his ways.  I knew this chap well, he was one of a large rather rough family who had previously lived a couple of doors from us.  I got him to agree to have his rent, plus a regular amount of his arrears, deducted from his wages and set this up for him with the finance department.  This worked very well, the money was credited to his rent account every week and eventually all his debt was cleared.  It was then discovered that he had left the council’s employ soon after making the arrangement and although finance were making regular payments they were not collecting any money to cover it.   I went to see him at his flat but this time he didn’t bother to talk he just did a moonlight flit.  Some years later when Letchworth Council had been absorbed into the new North Herts Council, he made an application for housing from his mother’s address.  He probably thought, or hoped, that records had not been transferred over and must have been very surprised to be told that his application would be accepted when he settled his debt.

House inspections, for the repairs section, was another duty I helped out with and soon got used to jibes from some of the staff  “make sure you wipe your feet-------------before you come out”. 

During this early period of my council service I saw, although I was not actually involved with, what some people will do to try to ‘jump the queue’ of the waiting list for a house.  A very small tent (1 metre high by 1 metre wide by 2 metres long) had been erected, in the garden at the front of the Town Hall, during the night. When staff arrived for work in the morning a young couple with a tiny baby, were sat in the entrance to it and the local press were busily taking pictures.  The couple remained there for three or four days, getting much sympathy and support from members of the public, when their pictures appeared in the papers.  What the papers didn’t publish and what very few members of the public were aware of was ---- each evening as darkness fell a much larger tent was erected over the small tent. The man stayed, while mother and baby left in a taxi to return in the early morning, just before daylight when the large tent was dismantled.

I had been with the council less than a year when Harold Brightwell the Housing Manager retired and was replaced by a woman.  She was well qualified and experienced in housing work but except for a couple of typists, the youngest person in the department. All the men, especially the older ones were worried about working for a lady boss but she turned out to be ‘one of the boys’.  Smoked cigars, drank pints of bitter, thought nothing of drinking 6 large whiskies at a session and still managed to be feminine.

It was at this time that the Lettings Officer became ill and I helped her young secretary to ‘hold the fort’ for some weeks before the officer died and the position was advertised.  Naturally I applied but because of my very short period of service I did not expect to be even considered.  However I was interviewed and was told that I had come second and, if the person to whom the job had been offered didn’t take it up, I would be appointed without any further interview.  In some ways this was a compliment and I was quite chuffed years later to learn that one of the applicants I had bettered became the Chief Executive to the Council in the Wirral.  The chap who had been offered the job accepted verbally over the telephone but he delayed putting this in writing and was given a time limit to do so.  He failed to do this so I was offered the job, on the understanding that I would combine it with my Rent Rebate job. Our new housing manager had quickly spotted that I was seriously unemployed in that capacity.  I accepted and the very next day was very proud to have my nameplate ‘Mr Fitton.  Lettings Officer’ on the door of my office (a proper one this time).  Again this did not go down well with the members of staff who had unsuccessfully applied but, I had by this time got used to being unpopular with some and was being accepted by most.

My job now became very different and I had a secretary, who was very helpful and saved me from making many mistakes, an increase in salary and virtual autonomy of my own little section.  The young secretary was only with me a couple of months as she left to have a baby.  Thank goodness she stayed long enough for me to get used to the job.  However luck stayed with me and I was fortunate to recruit Mary Whitworth as my new secretary.  We made a good team and after we had worked together for some time she often came into the office on Monday mornings with the greeting “It’s good to be back at work Mr. Fit”. Proof if it was needed of a very happy working relationship. 

One of the first difficulties I experienced in allocating tenancies was the lack of records.  My predecessor and the former housing manager and his deputy knew every property in the town and this information was ‘in their heads’, hardly anything on paper, so I had to put this right.  Starting with the flats in Icknield Way, Mary and I went along and listed which were one bedroom and which were two bedroom.  This only took a few hours, was simple to do and the end result most helpful.  So encouraged by our achievement I decided to do the same exercise with the maisonettes and bedsits on Western Way.  This proved to be a much more difficult job and to do it, Mary and I split up, she doing one end of the road and I the other.  After a couple of hours I decided it was time for a break and went to get Mary but she was nowhere to be seen.  I went up and down the road, began asking people but no one had seen her.  Then I began knocking at doors and tracing the ones she would have been checking.  Eventually after what seemed like hours and just as I was deciding to report her disappearance to the police, I was sure she had been kidnapped, she turned up.  Smiling brightly she explained that someone had taken pity on her, invited her in for a cup of tea and proved to be so interesting she had difficulty getting away.  We often laughed about it afterwards but at the time it was not very funny to me.

I was now responsible for the allocation of tenancies to over 9,000 council houses and flats, maintenance of the Waiting List, interviewing of all applicants, arranging exchanges and transfers and of course still dealing with applications for rent rebates.  These had to be dealt with according to approved council rules and regulations and I had to provide, on a monthly basis, reports to committee of all actions I had taken. Special cases that did not fall within the regular approved rules would be considered on merit, by councillors at these monthly meetings.  These special cases, jokingly called by staff “heart break corner” were usually raised by ‘do-gooders’, councillors, priests, ex-service associations, trade unions etc. had to be visited and investigated by me and were often a source of interest and amusement.  One case involved two families sharing a house and I had to listen to moans about how difficult it was for two women to share a kitchen.  I discovered, in good time, that one family actually lived in the house, the other family owned a property five miles away in Stevenage.  Another case was a lady who had her daughter and baby grand daughter living with her in a one bedroom flat, which was obviously too small.  I was shown the cot, pram toys etc. but had the feeling that something was not quite right.  So I asked “where do you store nappies?”  they hadn’t got any there, they were trying to pull a fast one, daughter had a house elsewhere but wanted to come to live in Letchworth.

The case of the gypsy family on the highway between Letchworth and Baldock was an experience which stayed in my mind for quite a long time and from which I learned a lot.  Some local people, with the best of intentions, approached the Chairman of Housing asking that proper accommodation should be found for the family of two women and a man.  So instructed by Miss Ridley to check it out I went, complete with clipboard and air of authority, to investigate, after first asking for advice from Miss Ridley.  She suggested that I tell the family that they were in the Baldock area and should apply at the Town Hall there.  Mr Eaton in charge at Baldock was however one step ahead. He was aware of the family, had alerted the local press and the paper featured a picture of the family, pushing their handcart of possessions and a lovely little Pug dog on top.  Mr Eaton claimed that the family were on Letchworth soil. The family consisting of a Mr & Mrs Loveridge and the wife’s elderly aunt, also Loveridge were sleeping in two bender tents, made from tree branches and blankets.   On asking their ages for the necessary form filling, the old aunt said “I’ll show you how old I am, young man” and proceeded to lift her ankle length skirt up to her shoulders and produce from somewhere under there a spotlessly clean birth certificate.  This stated that she had been born in a tent in Wrestlingworth in 1892, so she was 81 years of age and still sleeping in a tent.  I did wonder what the proof of age was going to be when she raised the skirt and was quite relieved to see the certificate.  Housing people such as these is, as everyone knows, the right thing to do, especially when they have a little Pug dog, which caused all the dog lover readers of the paper to feel sympathy.  Everyone knows that is, except the people who will be living next door to them.  I allocated a two bedroomed, detached bungalow and the do-gooders came with furniture, bedding, food, radios, televisions etc.  At first things went reasonably well but neighbours started to complain, when other gypsy families came to visit and caused quite a lot of traffic inconvenience.  The worst problem was caused by Mr Loveridge who could not, or would not, use a WC.  Each morning he would go down the road to a little wood and squat at the side of a tree, to perform the necessary.  This wood was on the route to school for the local children and so became the cause for numerous complaints.  The do-gooders and well wishers didn’t do much to solve that problem.  However time did, in the usual way.   Housing officers have a saying “When the daffodils bloom gypsies have a habit of moving on” and thankfully they did.  

Miss Ridley taught me a lot about housing but often used me, for the jobs that she did not want to get involved in.  Three in particular I will never forget (1) An application for housing from a couple living in an old farm cottage in one of the villages.  This was sent to Miss Ridley by the Chairman of Housing for her personal attention and supported by a report, from the chief Public Health Inspector (CPI), saying that the place was infested with rats.  Naturally Miss Ridley didn’t want anything to do with that one, so it landed on my desk.  I did the inspection and found a very neat little cottage like something out of pre-war days.  Water from a well about 50yards away, toilet in a bucket in a shed, at the bottom of the garden.  Memories of Auntie Maud, but, this was the 70’s not the 40’s.  I didn’t see any rats or evidence of them and simply accepted that a public health inspector would know what he was doing.  I gave the applicants a favourable report and was pleased to be able to offer them decent accommodation in Letchworth.

Miss Ridley came one day for me to go with her to a house in Pixmore Way to check on the tenant, an old chap who hadn’t been seen by his neighbours for some time.  No answer to our knocking and when I peered through the letterbox I spotted a string to which was attached a key.  How trusting we were in those days!  I opened the door and we searched the ground floor without finding anyone.  Next step was to go upstairs and obviously that was why I was there.  As there had been no response to our calls I could only suspect the worst and was a little apprehensive about what I would find.  In one bedroom lay the tenant with two half-eaten plates of baked beans lying on the bed and another similar plate on the floor.  I spoke to him and he opened his eyes and smiled, not in the least concerned to find a strange chap in his bedroom.  Nothing at all wrong with him, he had just had a lay in for a couple of days.  Quite a relief, for me and for my boss.

Charles Sax, Chairman of Housing, was also on the Management Board of the Letchworth Garden City Corporation (later to become the L G C Heritage Foundation) and had a habit of calling in to the housing office every Monday at 12.45 for Miss Ridley to give him a lift home.  To try to get out of this, one day she asked me to give her apologies to the Chairman and for me to take him home.  This was no trouble I would have plenty of time to do this and still be in time to collect my wife Jean at one o’clock outside the Spirella where she worked part-time. This had been my practice ever since I had been employed at the council.  How was I to know that Charles had a very generous whisky habit?  When we reached his house it was “come in Mr Fitton, have a little drop before lunch”.  He was most insistent, making it very difficult for a lowly housing officer to refuse.  So in I went to find that Charles Sax’s little drops were at least doubles, if not trebles.  Thinking of Jean waiting for me I knocked mine back fairly quickly, a big mistake.  He must have thought I could drink like him (I couldn’t then but have certainly made up for it later) and my glass was refilled immediately.  With that amount of Dutch courage inside me it was now time for me to be insistent so off I went, unfortunately about half an hour late for me to meet Jean.  Another complication was that it was raining heavily.  As could be expected Jean had given up and walked home. When I got there, I opened the door and full of alcoholic good humour called a greeting.  The response from Jean was worse than I had ever heard from her before, or indeed ever heard from her again, she was always so amenable, hardly ever got upset.  Expecting me to be there as I always was, she had no coat, no umbrella, nowhere to shelter and had waited in the pouring rain for 20 minutes before walking home.  She soon deflated my bonne homie!

One of my early difficult lettings problems was a much sought after property on the Jackmans Estate.  The estate of 1500 properties had been funded by the GLC under the New and Expanding Towns Scheme (NETS) and allocations were made on the rough guide of five to applicants from London and one to locals.  I was inundated with requests for this house, from councillors pushing for themselves or their constituents, from the usual organisations and from tenants wishing to transfer.  Obviously I would not win whatever I did but how was I to stop the complaints that would follow?  So I played the race card and allocated it to a black family from London.  Result, not one complaint.

When I became Lettings Officer only about 1,000 of the 1,500 planned for the estate had been completed and the allocation of the remaining 500 was a very time consuming part of my job and not made any easier when the builders went on strike.  During the strike I received a telephone call from a chap who was on the waiting list wanting to know how much longer it would be before he got his house.  He was one of the abusive ones, shouting and swearing down the phone.  I explained that the builders were on strike and so it was not possible to forecast the waiting time.  It turned out that he was one of the strikers.  An amusing incident was a young couple from London who accepted the keys of their new house, went to view it and then came panic stricken back to my office to report that there were ‘poppies’ growing in the field next to their garden.  They thought it was dangerous as opium came from poppies.  When tenants moved in to new properties they were given a ‘snag sheet’ on which they could report faults and after a short time the Clerk of Works would visit and arrange to rectify these faults. I once received a complaint by a tenant who said he had not been taken seriously by the Clerk of Works.  He had complained about an internal door that squeaked when it opened and had been told that all it needed was a little oil.  He contended that he was paying rent for the flat and it was our job to do things like that.   One of the sad things about the NETS was the elderly parent allocations.  Tenants who had been allocated properties under the scheme were able, after 6 months residence, to nominate their parents who would then be eligible for accommodation on the estate.  While the parents still lived in London sons and daughters would regularly visit and spend the day or a weekend with them, when they got to Letchworth it was more a case of a wave at the window or a five-minute “are you alright Mum?”  I had many requests from the elderly who were more lonely in Letchworth with their families, than they had been in London with their life long friends.  Unfortunately the Greater London Council were only interested in getting people out of London and there was no facility for taking them back.

Soon after I was ‘demobbed’ from the RAF I had been persuaded by my brother Ernest to join RAFA, the ex-service association and although attending meetings and social events had never taken on any duties. Then In 1968 the branch decided to enter a Float in the Letchworth & Hitchin Carnival, a fund raising event for the local hospital, our theme for the Float to be a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the RAF and 25th anniversary of the founding of the RAFA. This was to be in the form of a Birthday “CAKE” constructed from wood, paper, plastic drainpipes and polystyrene ceiling tiles. Work started in my back garden followed by a spell at the back of a member’s shop at Henlow and was eventually placed on an RAF truck courtesy of the C.O. at the station.


Phillip Burrows, SAC Smith, Jean Fitton, Bill Burrows, Eric Fitton

In 1970, or thereabouts, I was voted on to the Committee and became Welfare Officer for the branch, I also attended a course and became a Citizens Advice Bureau Interviewer. These positions unfortunately caused difficulties, some members of RAFA expected that they would be able to get council houses for their families or arrange transfers easily, in fact get special treatment from me.  Not everyone was pleased when they found it didn’t work like that.  With regard to C A B it became embarrassing when unsuccessful applicants for Council Housing found me waiting to take their complaint about me.  A blatant example of trying to pull strings was the chap who came into my office asking for the tenancy of a much sought after property that had just become vacant.  During the conversation he pulled the blazer he was wearing so that the badge was displayed prominently, it was a Jones Cranes Sports Club Badge and said, “You used to work at Jones Cranes didn’t you?”  I said “Yes and I also worked at Vauxhall Motors, so that puts about 30,000 people in front of you”, he did not appreciate my type of humour.  Sometime after I retired I heard that he had been elected on to the council and I have often wondered how honest and straightforward his dealings have been.

 

 

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