A brief history of the tenant movement in Wales

The tenants movement in Wales has been in existence since the 70’s but it wasn’t until 1987 that the movement united into one single organisation via a common constitution.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s local authorities utilised and supported tenant groups to consult on services. Swansea, Cardiff, Rhondda and Wrexham had many early active member groups, some of these emerged from rate payer associations initially formed to lobby against rate increases among tenanted properties in both the local authority and large private sector landlords.

Later, particularly local authority tenants formed federal structures uniting tenant and resident groups across the local authority area. Tenants also organised themselves across local authority boundaries such as the South Wales Association of Tenants (SWAT). The groups were not of the scale of the Leeds federations, made famous for their rent strikes in the 60’s. They preferred more conciliatory approaches, improving housing services, particularly repairs, through dialogue with their landlords. However, the 1985 miners strike also highlighted high unemployment in the valleys, evictions (made famous by the “Cathy Come Home” TV series) and the lack of housing investment.

Tenant Involvement had also been made prominent through the Priority Estates Projects (PEP), an English initiative, which devolved local authority housing decisions to an estate based level in an attempt to improve housing services. There were four pilots in Wales: Newport, Bridgend, Cardiff and the Glyn-Taff estate in Rhydfelin. Each had an estates office, employed their own workers and dealt directly with repairs and improvements. The projects were largely successful due to estate agreements, which enabled tenants to have their own elected bodies representing them in discussions about services.

With the winding up of the PEP’s by the Welsh Office, the PEP Tenants Federation, and their tenant representatives agreed that it was important to work as one organisation. A working party was set up to explore how this could be achieved. SWAT reconstituted itself into the Valleys Forum and together with the Federations in Swansea, Cardiff, Wrexham and the Rhondda, a working party was formed to see if an all Wales organisation could be established with 4 members from South Wales, 4 from North and 4 from Mid Wales.

Shelter Cymru organised the event on the 16th April 1987 where tenants from North, South and Mid Wales converged to establish the Welsh Tenants Federation at the Market Hall in Builth Wells. Shelter Cymru provided financial and administrative support of £5,000 per annum and continued to do so, until their own funding was cut. Edwin Jones, the WTF’s first support worker, steered them through the uncertain days until 1989.

Although housing standards were prominent, collective participation was seen as an important means by which a democratic and accountable organisation could develop. This also ensured that equality played an important role as many of our activists were women. In Wales therefore, the WTF found natural allies in the feminist and equalities agenda, principle among these was Val Feld, then Director of Women’s Aid in Swansea. During this year, the WTF made a strong commitment to support housing associations, which were going to play an important role in developing new housing in Wales through the Housing Act introduced by the Conservatives in 1989.

Without the support of former Welsh Assembly AM Val Feld who sadly died in 2002, John Puzey (Director of Shelter Cymru), Jane Hutt AM, currently Welsh Assembly Business Minister, the Welsh Tenants Federation would not have been developed.

But there were less prominent but arguably more important people, who played critical roles in the early development. People such as Joe Barrett, Ashley Williams (Tenant Activist, Shelter Cymru, Tenant Support Worker and former Assistant Director of TPAS Cymru), Christine Barwick (Welsh Office and Welsh Assembly Government Housing department).

Yvonne Jones, who did much to unite tenants across North Wales. Without these and other key people, the Welsh Tenants’ Federation would not have survived the turbulent years between April 87 and 1994.

In 1989 TPAS (Tenant Participation Advisory Service) Wales was formed replicating what had been established some years prior in Scotland. Jane Hutt became its first Director with Jennis Williams as Administrator, these were also later joined by development workers Anne Williams and Ashley Williams (not related). A close working relationship developed between the three organisations WTF, TPAS Cymru and Shelter Cymru. But more so between WTF and TPAS Wales.

Both organisations received core funding from the Welsh Office and began working closely to develop to support and training to enable groups to play a key role in the improvement of services to tenants via constructive dialogue. Arguably, landlords needed more training than tenants as prior, services were delivered from the top down rather than in participation with tenants in a bottom up approach. Cultural change was therefore key.

In 1990, the first all Wales “Tenants” conference was convened jointly hosted by WTF and TPAS Wales in Llandrindod Wells at the Metropole Hotel. A partnership which has continued throughout the years.

A new era – a new agenda

The Welsh Tenants Federation which has now been renamed Welsh Tenants has always been and will continue to be, a movement run by, and for tenants in Wales. It is unique in its management structure, as the voluntary members employ and manage their workers who support them and their members in their work, rather than the other way round, (which is the more common approach in the voluntary sector).

 

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