The legacy of the Clay Cross rebellion

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

This Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of legislation that triggered one of the most famous rebellions in the history of housing – and it is a story with a contemporary twist.

October 1, 1972 was the date that ‘fair’ rents were imposed on council housing by Edward Heath’s Conservative government. Under the Housing Finance Act 1972 all local authorities were forced to increase their rents by £1 a week (around 50 per cent).

Many in England, Wales and Scotland resisted interference by central government in their right to set their own rents but, threatened with the appointment of a Housing Commissioner, all but one eventually complied.

Clay Cross Urban District Council in Derbyshire refused point blank to increase rents that were the lowest in the country at around £1.65 a week.

The Labour-controlled council had a long track record of going its own way and finding loopholes in legislation it did not like: there were rebellions not just over rents but also over free school milk and pay for council staff.

Led by Dennis Skinner until he became the MP for nearby Bolsover, Clay Cross saw housing as one its top priorities as it replaced slums that had been built by the mine owners before nationalisation with new council houses at low rents.

As one councillor put it: ‘On this council we like to think of ourselves as basic socialists. We regard housing here as a social service, not as something the private sector can profit from.’

The council’s policy of subsidising rents from the rates had been overwhelmingly backed by the electorate in recent local elections that saw all 11 Labour councillors returned against candidates from the Ratepayers Association.

What happened after October 1 is a complex story with lots of twists and turns. For contemporary accounts of what happened, read David Skinner and Julia Langdon’s The Story of Clay Cross or watch the ITV documentary Confrontation at Clay Cross. The Municipal Dreams blog has two good posts on the history of council housing in the town and the rents rebellion itself.

To cut that long story short, the 11 Clay Cross councillors held firm and refused to increase the rents despite legal action by the district auditor.

When a Housing Commissioner was eventually appointed, the council refused to cooperate, or to give him a desk, a chair or even a pencil. Tenants went on a rent strike and the commissioner left after failing to collect any of the increase.

But the 11 councillors – who included Graham and David Skinner, two of Dennis’s brothers – eventually paid a heavy price for their opposition as they were surcharged and banned from holding public office.

The story of Clay Cross Council itself came to end when it was abolished in the local government reorganisation of 1974 to become part of the new North East Derbyshire Council.

At a time when we almost take it for granted that central government can use the housing finance system to force councils to do whatever it wants and rents need to be set against business plans, this may seem like a distant world.

The idea of politicians sticking to their principles no matter what makes it seem even more remote and echoes the legendary defiance of Poplar councillors in the rates rebellion of the 1920s.

But the confrontation also foreshadowed events to come: the restoration of tight financial control on council housing under the Conservatives after 1979; ultimately unsuccessful resistance by councils to the Right to Buy; the rate capping rebellion of the 1980s; and the introduction of the poll tax and then the council tax as a way of limiting taxes on property owners. 

One of the key principles at stake was whether local councillors should or be free to decide on their own priorities or simply do as they are told by central government.

This is not a question with a simple answer. Consider, for example, the temptation for politicians to win votes by keeping rents low regardless of the long-term impact on maintenance budgets or the bad old days of councillors deciding allocations.

Or think of what happened when the boot was on the other foot and the illegal Homes for Votes policies of Conservative-controlled Westminster City Council were successfully challenged via the district auditor.

Housing staff at Clay Cross found themselves caught in the middle and forced to choose between obeying their elected councillors and obeying the law.

However, the story is also a reminder that councillors from all parties once saw it as their duty to meet housing need in their area by building council houses.

The housing associations and local authorities of today may be business-like and efficient and argue they combine that with a social purpose but has something important been lost in the process?

Since 1979 council and social rents have risen consistently ahead of inflation as a matter of deliberate policy. The outright hostility of Margaret Thatcher may have gone, and councils are now free from the restrictions of the housing subsidy system, but inflation-plus rent increases continue as a way of financing new development.

Local authority rents have doubled in real terms since 1988 – and that is despite four years of rent cuts after 2016.

And there is a contemporary coda to the story. Flash forward to the present day and Lee Rowley, the Conservative MP for North East Derbyshire, has just become the latest new housing minister (albeit the first I can remember to be a junior parliamentary under-secretary rather than a middle-ranking minister of state).

Although he was not even born at the time of the battle between Clay Cross and a previous Tory government, he seems well aware of the history of the ‘socialist rent rebels’ in his constituency.

As minister, he will now play a major role in deciding how much social housing rents will rise in 2023 after the consultation on alternatives to the 11 per cent increase implied by the rent formula.

Presented with options of 3 per cent, 5 per cent or 7 per cent increases during a cost of living crisis, it’s pretty clear how the Clay Cross councillors would have responded.


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