Lime Legal

Life on the frontline

Published 01 September 2023

From tea maker to top man. David Bibey on the highs and lows of 35 years in housing

September 1970. Jimi Hendrix died and fresh from school I joined the world of social housing as junior clerk and tea maker. Over 30 years later, at least one of these events is remembered with some sense of regret. 'Housing' I had been assured, was a good career to follow. What I was not told was that it is not so much a career as a vocation that will not let you go once it has ensnared you.

Apart from making some really bad tea, my earliest memory is of hand delivering slum clearance notices to several hundred addresses due to a postal strike. Generally my breezy and youthful ‘good morning I'm from the council. This is to let you know that your house will be coming down,’ went down well. The exception was one café owner who chased me off while brandishing a meat cleaver. Thankfully I was a pretty fast runner.

Promotion was to allocations, where I sent out offer letters and signed up tenants for the seemingly endless supply of council new build. No accompanied view in those days. It was a trip to the office and a quick rundown of the bus routes, the rent and an explanation of district heating.

It was around this time that I got to know the local councillor and chair of housing. He explained to me that the most important issue for a newly elected councillor is re-election. I'm not sure too many elected politicians have been that honest with me since.

From new property sign-ups via housing advice and back to main stock sign-ups, I was promoted to the best job in housing at the time. Housing visitor. It was not just the money or the mileage allowance. It was the freedom from office life. An early start to collect files, work out a route for the day and off to do the best part of housing – meeting people in their own home.

True, not all homes are places you would want to visit twice. Getting stuck to a chair by some foreign substance soon teaches you how to talk, walk and make notes at the same time. I must take this opportunity to belatedly apologise to the family whose sink unit I demolished by leaning on it. I did give you extra points for it. Looking back I realise that I was part of paternalistic housing. At the time it was just a good job.

The first of many restructurings brought my freedom to an end and I was relocated to an area housing office as a welfare officer. A grand title, which I never really understood. Welfare appeared to mean anything the area manager wanted done, serious rent arrears, neighbour nuisance, requests for transfer or managing the local sheltered housing scheme. The experience was not all boring, as the office was one of the first to get computers. True, in comparison to the one I use today, it was steam driven. But for us at the time it was almost science fiction come true.

From one area office to another via several restructurings and job titles I moved onwards and slowly upwards. During the 1980s I settled down into area office life, with the occasional highlight of public consultation on modernisation schemes and public meeting to explain the various Housing Acts.

While the organisation went through several changes, the work with tenants on their day-to-day questions and problems went on. I learnt about inspecting vacant property, estimating repair costs (informed guessing), mediating and how the courts work. The mid-1980s brought one of my biggest challenges to date, when the area manager resigned, leaving a major report on a group of non-traditional houses to be written and delivered to committee.

Thirteen different options for the site ended up in the final report, but thankfully councillors picked the one the residents and I wanted. From report, to resident involvement with the architects, to demolition, build and refurbishment I learnt a lot and like to think I helped improve things for those who got better houses, and those who moved into the new bungalows we managed to squeeze onto the site. That is what housing is about, making a difference.

By the early 1990s I had become stuck in an organisation dominated by younger people, so I moved on to work elsewhere on allocations and homelessness. Managing 40 staff with a housing register of over 13,000 names was a challenge, but in the early days it was fun.

I found working for a smaller authority very different and I'm sure I upset a lot of people, as I was used to working a lot faster and with less direct supervision. It took me a long time to find out that people would not follow any instruction that was not in writing, and that councillors were not used to being told 'no’.

It also took me time to understand that people did not change easily, even when I could show that that it was wrong to say someone was intentionally pregnant!

More restructuring left me managing homelessness, which has become more of a challenge over the years as rehousing opportunities decrease and the number of families that cannot buy or afford to rent privately increases.

I have worked hard to establish myself as knowledgeable in the field, so that others listen to my views, which are very simple. Homelessness will only be tackled successfully when there is sufficient council housing for those who need it.

Over 30 years, I have seen housing change when housing need has not, and politicians pressurise services to work in the ‘spirit’ of the legislation on homelessness because they don’t like what it says.

In 1970, the problem was how to let new build quickly enough. Today it’s how to get people to stay at home and wait for something that may never happen.

David Bibey is homelessness team leader at Northampton Borough Council