The Langrove Action Story
A Community and a Council at Odds
Early in 1984 the Militant-led Liverpool City Council put on display their Urban Regeneration Strategy (URS) for 17 Priority Areas in the city. For one of those priority areas, within the West Everton area, there was planned a large Victorian Park, stretching from Heyworth Street at the top of the hill down to Great Homer Street.
Christians at St Peter’s and Shrewsbury House on Langrove Street believed that every person is made in the image of God and that therefore every person be able to have a say in what happens to their community. What did local people think of this proposal for a large Park?
The West Everton Community Council (WECC) had been set up in the 1960s (with Christians from both St Peter’s and Roman Catholic Churches the Friary and St Francis Xavier’s very much involved in both its setting up and continuation) to give a voice to local residents. So through WECC, Christians from St Peter’s and the Shewsy joined in with others from the community, including Christians from the Friary and St Francis Xavier’s, to take a questionnaire round the community and ask what local people thought of the Council’s plan both to demolish the Arkwright Street estate and to build this large Park with its lake and other features.
The results of the questionnaire were that an overwhelming majority thought that a Park at the top of the hill with its magnificent view down to the Mersey and across to Birkenhead and the Welsh hills was a good idea. For 20 years that view had been blocked by the 2 Netherfield Brow blocks.
Local people also thought that the tower blocks and maisonettes on the Arkwright Street estate should be demolished. But they thought that it would be stupid and wrong to demolish the good 4 bedroom houses on Langrove Street, Rose Vale and Arkwright Street.
The majority wanted to stay in the community and therefore wanted some new housing to replace the demolished maisonettes and tower blocks so that they could stay and so that the community could survive. They also thought a lake just at the back of where Paddy’s Great Homer Street Market happened every Saturday was a bad idea: the lake would very possibly end up full of shopping trolleys and a danger to children.
Local people, including Christians from the churches, went down to the Council’s displays and voiced concerns about the plans. The desire to keep the Langrove houses was expressed and also the desire to replace the demolished housing on the Arkwright Street estate with new housing. “You can’t build houses on hills” was the surprising answer from a Senior Council officer: a puzzling response to local residents who had seen many houses on the hills of Everton.
Soon Council officers were visiting residents in the Langrove, Rose Vale and Arkwright Street 4 bed houses and saying that the houses were definitely coming down, that there was no chance of them staying up, and offering some newly-built houses in North Everton and outside the Everton area. Understandably and reluctantly many accepted the offers to move.
In October 1986 the 5 houses in the bottom row of the Arkwright Street 4-bed houses were demolished as soon as the last resident moved out. It was a scandal to many in the community to see such good 4 bed houses being demolished. What were we to do? Stand idly by and watch the remaining 30 good quality 4 bed houses go the same way?
The Community Comes Together
On December 20th 1986 the last resident of the row of houses at the top of Arkwright Street moved out and she left her key to a member of the about to be formed Langrove Street Action Group (LSAG) and the occupation of that house began. The Council couldn’t demolish a row of houses while someone was living there. So over that Christmas and on into the new year a rota of occupiers was formed.
The “Langrove Street Bible” was started as a record of what was happening and as a helpful guide and news communication to the next person on the rota. I slept there Wednesday and Friday, and Father Michael Bingham from the Friary and Father Michael Ashworth from St Francis Xavier’s were also on the rota, and in the newly formed Langrove Street Action Group were Barbara Cunningham, Derek Bowman, Jane Corbett, Eddie McCracken from St Peter’s, Pauline Davies and Sammy Rice from WECC, Mick Barlow, Tony Knight, Roy McGaw, Ann Roach and others from the community, Peter Brennan and other volunteers from the Shewsy, and at the heart of it all was John Hutchison, a Church member at St Peter’s who had previously been Youth worker at the Shewsy.
Shelter, in the person of Roy Murphy, heard of the action and Roy became an important supporter, providing some funding as well as encouragement. Rod Yeoman of CDS Housing heard of the action and called in and met Barb Cunningham sweeping up in 68 Arkwright Street, our occupied house. “Lovely people but I didn’t think they had a chance” Rod reflected, but he then became a great supporter with his expertise on housing and CDS became our Housing allies.
The Conflict Deepens
In January 1987 the last resident moved out of the Rose Vale 4-bed houses and the Council sent in workers to demolish that row of houses. The LSAG got a court injunction to stop the demolition and watchers on Rose Vale saw the great sight of a solicitor, Stephen Cornforth, a Christian, running down the street waving the piece of paper to stop the demolition.
Barb Cunningham also added her voice and the full range of the English language to persuade the workers to stop as they tried to do as much damage with pickaxes to the houses’ roofs as they could. Bishop David and Grace Sheppard were there with Monsignor Jimmy Dunne representing Archbishop Derek Worlock. “Sorry about the language” said Barb to David and Grace: “Don’t worry, keep going, Barb” was Grace’s reply and Mark Hedley told the story in his address at Bishop David’s Memorial Service in Liverpool Cathedral.
The LSAG had taken the Council to court on the charge that they had not consulted with the community in their plans for the Park and for the demolition of the Langrove houses.
It was not a straightforward case as the Council could argue that there had been public displays of the plans with the opportunity to feed comments in. The fact that those comments had been disregarded might not in itself undermine their case. “When we have decided what to do with Shrewsbury House, we’ll tell you” was one Militant Councillor’s comment and gives a flavour of the willingness to listen. Consultation?
Mark Hedley was LSAG’s barrister, “one of the cases I have been most nervous about”: it was about his community and on behalf of his friends and neighbours and it was a far from easy brief.
Just before the case finished the 47 Militant Councillors were disqualified in the High Court for not setting a legal rate for the City and a Liberal administration took over temporarily ahead of the May elections. The Liberals backed the LSAG’s campaign to save the Langrove houses and when a new Labour Council took power after the May elections they were supportive of the campaign. On May 16th 1987 The Langrove Community Housing Co-op Ltd was registered, and on July 16th the Council’s Housing committee supported the Langrove Co-op and the full City Council ratified the decision on July 29th 1987.
An application was made to the Housing Corporation North West and by December 1987, a year on from the first occupation of 68, Arkwright Street, contractors were on site and the refurbishment was begining. Full funding was approved in February 1988, and at 6.20pm on December 20 th 1989 the last resident moved in to 41, Langrove Street, 3 years to the hour and day of the first occupation.
Success ‘Against the Odds’
On Friday June 29th 1990 Glenda Jackson officially opened the Langrove, Rose Vale and Arkwright Street houses, and as part of a great day of celebration she said at the reception in Shrewsbury House on Langrove Street: “Many, many congratulations, because you are living proof that it is people that matter and not things, and that people power can be harnessed, and surprise, surprise, people are the best people to ask about how they want to live and where they want to live. So you are a great example to everybody else. If I could just say personally that I’ve met some people up here whose friendship – we may not meet very often but I do regard them as friends – I will value and remember all my life” (Glenda Jackson had been involved earlier in a BBC programme “It’s My City” that had featured the Langrove campaign).
Max Steinberg, Head of the Housing Corporation North West, also spoke on the day about the funding of the Langrove Co-op: “I think it’s probably one of the best things we’ve ever done. We don’t have solutions, we have resources. You have the solution. You knew what was needed. You made us do our job. I know there is more work to be done.”
The work has carried on. Further housing has been added to the 4 bed houses that the LSAG saved. The park has been redesigned and a sheltered scheme St Martin’s Mews was campaigned for and completed with the first residents being involved with the scheme’s, and each individual home’s, design. St Martin’s Mews has proved a very popular place to live. David Wilson Homes have more recently built some excellent houses to add to the housing provision beside the Langrove Co-op. A Friends of Everton Park group has been formed with Christians from St Peter’s and other churches involved alongside those with no Church involvement and a Heritage Trail celebrating some of the history of the area was launched in November 2012. In 1990 the West Everton Community won a National Community Enterprise award: the judges described our winning entry as a “project consisting of a large number of people tackling a complex variety of local projects in a co-operative and enthusiastic way and against tremendous odds.”
Christianity in the Campaign
The Langrove story revolves around a group of local people in Everton reacting to what they perceived as a misconceived plan by the City Council.
At the heart of the group were Christians, but the group was by no means exclusively made up of Christians. John and Hilary Hutchison, Barbara Cunningham, Derek Bowman, Jane and Henry Corbett, Eddie McCracken, Mark Hedley and others were from St Peter’s, priests Michael Bingham and Michael Ashworth and others were from the local Roman Catholic Churches, but there were also people from the community with no Church involvement.
Paul Edwards, City Council community liaison worker in the Everton area, had no belief in God but came to respect deeply the Christians involved and the principles they worked to. Barb Cunningham would be asked at the end of the group’s meetings to say a prayer, often not by a church member, “but not too long, Barb, we want to get to the pub before last orders.”
In the Langrove Street Bible there would be entries about trouble in the night or a lack of tea bags and also comments about the justice of our campaign, the principles behind what was happening. Old Testament prophets would be invoked, Jesus’ teaching on “Love your enemies” was an important principle in our attitude towards those against the campaign, perseverance in the name of what was right and just not simply in the hope of success. “Christians are willing to fight losing battles” was a comment by a previous priest at St Francis Xavier ‘s Church, Ralph Woodall, who had seen how well protected Council authorities so often are in the face of local action, and that comment was remembered when the situation looked very difficult.
Billy Howarth would go for a drink in the local Lamplighter pub on Great Homer Street and would be told over his pint that the campaign had no chance. But succeed it did and that was an inspiration for other campaigns across the community as people battled for a new Health Centre, for improved housing at the Islington-Langsdale end of West Everton, for the sheltered scheme at St Martin’s Mews, for play facilities.
The story of Nehemiah was preached on at St Peter’s with its emphasis on vision, prayer, courage, teamwork, and perseverance in the face of opposition. God’s concern for all of life was celebrated, with verses in Deuteronomy on housing, on society, on justice.
The Importance of Allies
The motivation for many of us was to obey our God of love, mercy and justice, and our vision was for a fairer, more empowered community.
For local people not to have a say in the future of their community seemed to us to be a scandal, an offence to the God who made each person in God’s image. At the same time we loved to work with others, with Roy Murphy of Shelter, with Rod Yeoman from CDS, with Max Steinberg from the Housing Corporation, with the City Council when they would engage with us; we enjoyed support from Bishop David and Grace Sheppard and from Archbishop Derek Worlock and Monsignor Jimmy Dunne, but always we felt that the wisdom and experience of local people were vital for the best future, for God’s future for our West Everton community.
A “Speaking with Confidence” course was taken up. The aim was for genuine community development, and Paul Edwards, Michael Bingham and others shared insights from Paulo Freire and the principles of Training for Transformation were welcomed and celebrated. Leadership was collaborative, skills were appreciated and shared. We had community services, we had shared services between the churches, we had nights out, days away and our community action helped the churches work increasingly well together.
The people who were involved in the Langrove campaign did not get any financial or housing gain out of all their voluntary campaigning work. They saved the houses not for themselves but for others. We were delighted and thrilled to do so. We did it because of a passion for justice, for the future of our community, in many cases but not in all cases informed and motivated and inspired by a Christian faith.
As the Church looks to the future in whatever situation we find ourselves, the principle of working with others, including those who do not share our faith but who can work for the same goals, is a vital and important one. Bishop David Sheppard would often speak of “finding allies”. The Langrove story illustrates the value of such alliances against the considerable odds of the Militant-led City Council. We did in fact lose the court case, but we saved the houses and achieved so much more in the lives, morale, development and future of the West Everton community.
Henry Corbett December 2012
The principles of the Langrove Street Action Group are to:
© Jane Corbett. Do not use without written permission.