We like a challenge at Bushbury Hill, so not only are we trying to be the first tenant led organisation to use the Right to Transfer but to do so with an estate comprising mostly of “designated defective” properties as defined by Part XVI of the Housing Act 1985.
What’s a Boswell?
683 of the 847 homes in Bushbury Hill are of a non-traditional construction type known as “Boswell” (named after the developer that built them) made of concrete cast in-situ.
The Boswell system of house construction was developed by M. A. Boswell and Co Ltd of Wolverhampton during the late 1920s, and was used by Birmingham Corporation, Liverpool Corporation and Wolverhampton Corporation Housing Authorities to provide 1370, 1500 and 1050 dwellings respectively. All these dwellings are believed to have been completed prior to 1928.
By the 1990s the Bushbury Hill Boswells were showing severe signs of distress and the Council hatched a secret plan to demolish the whole estate. The tenants discovered this and appealed directly to the Government for funding to reject the redevelopment and renovate the existing properties. The Boswell houses had the corner pillars replaced and were clad externally with insulation and render to protect the structure from the weather and help make the properties warm.
It was the fight to save their homes and community that lit the fire of tenant activism in Bushbury Hill which eventually led to tenants exercising their Right to Manage and setting up Bushbury Hill EMB in 1998. The Boswells were given a new lease of life and so was the community and in many ways the destiny and health of the community is still bound to the condition of these defective dwellings.
I think all the Birmingham Boswells have now been demolished, but some of the Liverpool Boswells still have a future – thanks to a tenant led stock transfer. The Pinehurst Estate Tenants & Residents Association (PETRA) in Anfield led the campaign to save their homes and in their case the funding and investment was secured in part through a stock transfer in 1999 to CDS Housing (now merged into Plus Dane Group). The Pinehurst Boswells were made structurally sound and improved with the help of external cladding. As with Bushbury Hill the preservation of the Boswells went hand in had with the preservation of the community.
You want to borrow how much?
Clearly there is a slight issue when it comes to borrowing money against a housing asset that is condemned by statute as no good. Historically levels of Right to Buy in Bushbury Hill have been lower than typical because tenants have been wary of buying a Boswell, or have not been able to obtain a mortgage to do so.
The same apply with regards to stock transfer. In order to buy the estate and invest in tenants homes, a new landlord will need to borrow money, secured against the homes and the rental income they provide. Understandably this is a bit of problem if potential lenders can’t be sure the properties they are lending against will still be there in 30 years time.
As part of the Feasibility Stage of the Right to Transfer we have commissioned a stock condition survey, which will inform the financial modelling that will determine the viability of various options under the Right to Transfer. In addition we have also had specialist structural surveys carried out on a sample of the Boswell houses.
A particular concern was the concrete foundations of the Boswells which suffered some of the same issues as the walls, but could not be remedied in the same way. It is fair to say that without solid foundations, tenants’ dreams of transfer would be sunk.
But if they were going to fall over, wouldn’t there be signs?
Whilst it was a worry, my personal view was that there was plenty of life in the Boswells yet. I confess I have no technical qualifications, but it just seemed highly unlikely that the houses were going to go from sound to collapse in the next 20 years. My reasoning was that with the houses coming up to 90 years old, if the foundations were going to fail, statistically some of them already would have done so. To date none of the Boswell houses we manage have had structural problems, if they were really towards the end of their lives, we would be seeing evidence already.
Ironically, we have had more issues with the structure of some of the brick houses than with any of the Boswells and yet because these are of traditional construction, lenders would be quite comfortable with lending against these properties.
The man from Del Monte, he say “Yes”
In spite of my confidence, the wait for the consulting engineers to dig their holes and give their verdict was a little tense. It was a great relief when their summary report came back and they confirmed that the Boswells will still be standing in 2044. They will require some work over the 30 years but this amounts to a mere £100 per property per year, so nothing major to be worried about.
Naturally there are caveats and they say the Boswells won’t live for ever, but I suspect you could say the same for most of the housing stock in the UK. Many houses over 150 years old have no foundations at all and they are still standing, so my instinct is that the Boswells will keep confounding those who write them off.