At the weekend the Eldonians were given the freedom of the city but back in the 1980s they had to battle the hard-left controlled city council to establish their ground-breaking housing co-operative. Tony McDonough reports
Militant tried to stop them but they would not be beaten and now the city council that once bitterly opposed Liverpool’s Eldonians housing co-operative is to honour them.
Faced with the prospect of their homes being demolished and a 150-year-old community being broken up and dispersed, the people in this small enclave of Vauxhall in the north of the city decided to get organised.
They came up with a plan to seek funding to replace their run-down homes and revitalise their area with new community facilities on the site of the abandoned former Tate & Lyle sugar factory.
A battle begins
But this was 1983 and the Militant hard left group who exerted an iron grip on the city council at this time had other ideas.
They were in the process of implementing their “total housing policy”, a one-size-fits-all approach where people would be allocated a bog-standard home anywhere in the city without any say about where they would like to live.
Deals to allow housing co-operatives to be set up in the city, agreed by the previous Liberal administration, were torn up.
In a press interview in the 1980s Tony Byrne, then chair of the council’s finance committee, said co-operatives were a Tory conspiracy to undermine council housing.
“Co-ops are supported by Mrs Thatcher, Patrick Jenkin (the Secretary of State for the Environment) and Prince Charles,” he explained, “And there’s not a lot they do that’s in the interests of the working class.”
So the people of Vauxhall were now caught directly in the crossfire of the ideological battle between left and right in 1980s Britain – a battle in which the fate of ordinary people was of secondary concern to both sides.
It was a top-down we-know-best philosophy from the council – but the 145 Eldonians families were determined their community would remain intact and a bitter battle of wills ensued.
Led by community leader Tony McGann, and with the help of the local Catholic priest, the residents formed the Eldonian Community Association (the church was on Eldon Street).
They gained the support of English Industrial Estates, the Government agency that controlled the factory site, and the Housing Corporation.
The then Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock, and Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, David Sheppard, were also behind the idea.
The Housing Corporation announced it would finance the £6.5m cost of the Eldonians plan but the battle was not over.
The city council refused planning permission for the scheme on the grounds the factory site was not suitable for residential development, despite having built council houses close by.
A planning inquiry ensued with the Secretary of State eventually overturning the council’s planners.
The Labour council was eventually removed from office after failing to set a legal budget. The Liberals took back control of the council and worked with the Eldonians to help turn the project into reality.
The Merseyside Development Corporation also played a significant role, dealing with issues such as land remediation and land disposal, among others. The MDC was also behind other regeneration schemes at the time including the Albert Dock and the 1984 International Garden Festival.
Families move in
The first families moved into the Eldonian Village in July 1988 with Prince Charles formally opening the development in 1989.
Today the area boasts more than 400 houses, a community sports centre, a nursery and a community village hall – and won the World Habitat Award in 2004.
Tony McGann, who was awarded an OBE, continues to be a major influence in the area.
On Saturday he was awarded the Freedom of Liverpool along with the Eldonians Community Based Housing Association, which he chairs.
Tony said: “This is a very proud day for the whole of the local community.
“Everyone who lives in the Eldonians has huge pride and passion in the area and a terrific sense of community spirit and it is truly humbling that we are being recognised.
“Speaking personally, I am proud and delighted to be made a Freeman of Liverpool. All I want to do when I go away is come back to Liverpool.
“Our people are the best in the world and to be honoured by your home city is amazing.”
The ceremony was held outside the Eldonian Village Hall as part of an all-day community celebration which will be attended by local residents.
Liverpool Lord Mayor, Councillor Malcolm Kennedy, said: “Tony and his colleagues at the Eldonians typify some of the greatest characteristics of scousers – a huge love for the city, a determination to improve lives and caring for their neighbours.
“This is an area I know and love intimately and it is a huge honour for me to be able to reward decades of hard work by presenting the city’s highest civic honour to both Tony and the Eldonians.”
It is a long overdue recognition of the amazing battle fought by the people of Vauxhall to keep their community intact.
As Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson said: “It is right and proper that we formally recognise and celebrate their achievements by awarding them the city’s highest civic honour.”