Friday, 26 May 2017

Back in action

Fervent socialist Linda Bellos is no stranger to controversy. But after a few years out, the ex-leader of Lambeth Council is back, and makes it clear to Jess McCabe that she has no intention of toning down her views, especially on social housing

Linda Bellos meets me at Norwich train station with one of her dogs. She is wearing what she explains is her dog-walking jacket. Pushing a wet nose into my face, the dog, Sam, rides back to Ms Bellos’ country cottage standing between the front seats of her Volvo.

We drive up a small, tree-lined private road to approach the pretty house where Ms Bellos lives with her civil partner, Caroline Jones. Another dog frolics in her front garden, where the 63-year-old radical socialist might be seen by her very few neighbours tending the daffodils. She is growing peas and sweetcorn in the living room window. One of her two grandchildren is staying in the spare bedroom when Inside Housing visits.

Controversial career

Over the years Ms Bellos has been caricatured as a ‘firebrand’ (see box: bad press). She rose to prominence in 1986 when she was elected leader of Lambeth Council and pursued controversial policies, such as requiring the police to seek permission before entering council-owned properties. Given that she was once quoted as saying that being called middle class was a ‘slur’, the setting of our interview could seem surprising.

A glance at the couple’s bookshelves confirms that a life in the country, and a job advising organisations like housing associations and the police on diversity issues, hasn’t de-radicalised Ms Bellos: David Hockney’s charming study of his two dachshunds, Dog Days, nestles alongside the Socialist Register, 1971 edition.

With characteristic straight-talking zest, Ms Bellos, exclaims: ‘Caroline and I rent this, we have no desire to own property, couldn’t give a toss about [the fact we are] renting.’

It’s not that she is opposed to private property - she’s not that sort of socialist. When Ms Bellos was leader of Lambeth Council from 1986 to 1988, she was a homeowner. But, she proclaims, Britons are tying themselves in unnecessary knots to get a foot on the property ladder.

‘The property-owning democracy is an ideology. The majority of people in Germany don’t own their own homes, it’s not fundamental to their capitalism or their dynamism,’ she observes.

Ms Bellos has just stood for office again, as a Labour councillor in her new Norfolk home. She didn’t get in, but says she wasn’t expecting to. ‘I stood in at the last minute because I wanted to give people the chance to vote Labour,’ she states.

When she was leader of Lambeth, Ms Bellos strongly protested policies like right to buy. Now she is preparing her memoirs and they will undoubtedly be crammed with anecdotes and lessons for social housing today. ‘I’ve got some very interesting stories that will surprise some people,’ she hints.

Inside Housing meets Ms Bellos at a time when the politics of the 1980s are fresh in everyone’s minds following the death of Margaret Thatcher. Even the term ‘loony left’, regularly used in stories about Ms Bellos 30 years ago, has come back into fashion in the tabloids.

Linda Bellos OBE, former leader of Lambeth Council

Linda Bellos now lives in Norwich and advises housing organisations on diversity

And Ms Bellos, who launched Black History Month in the UK and carried out the first ever equality impact assessment, is back on the scene once again after taking a few years out to take care of Ms Jones, who is recuperating from cancer.

She recalls growing up in south London in the 1950s, and says when she looked at the world around her, ‘I thought it was wrong’. Her mum and dad were factory workers and Labour activists. Her mother was Jewish and her father was born in Nigeria, and they helped her understand prejudice and discrimination.

She speaks slowly, recalling one incident that has stuck in her mind. Ms Bellos was around eight, and she was walking across Dulwich Park with her younger brother, only six, and they were laughing.

‘A man in a car, it was a grey Rover, with a South African accent, he stopped the car and he racially abused us,’ she recalls. ‘As he drove off, his child was in the back of the car. Once he’d gone I articulated what I wanted to say to him. I remember, in part, I thought I never want to be in a position again where I can’t reply, where I can’t respond immediately. From that time, I decided I would be able to respond.’

Starting young

By her late teens, Ms Bellos was participating in the big demonstrations of the era. In school, she sold copies of the Daily Worker newspaper - precursor to the Morning Star - to teachers in the staff room.

By the late 1970s, Ms Bellos had two young children. She left her husband, went to Sussex University to study politics, and ‘became a lesbian and a feminist’. Actively involved in Labour Party politics, Ms Bellos’ first job after university was on the feminist magazine Spare Rib.

At this time, two key pieces of equality legislation were also passed - the Sexual Discrimination Act in 1975 and the Race Relations Act in 1976. ‘I started thinking positively about using the law - the laws were there and headway could be gained,’ Ms Bellos explains.

In the early 1980s, she was involved in Black Sections, a group in the Labour Party that aimed to increase the representation of black and Asian people in the government, and propelled politicians such as Paul Boateng and Diane Abbott into the House of Commons.

Summing up the times, she says: ‘The discrimination that black people were experiencing in housing, employment, with the police, the things that we had expected to be an equal part of society and we clearly were not… It’s not enough to protest, one needed to be involved in a political party to change it.’

In 1985, a by-election came up for councillors in the Larkhill ward of Lambeth. Ms Bellos went for it and won. ‘I didn’t particularly want to be a councillor,’ she says. ‘I was encouraging other black people to join the Labour Party, so I couldn’t refuse to stand.’

That year, the Labour administration refused to set a budget in protest at cuts imposed by Mrs Thatcher. In the aftermath, the councillors were told by an auditor to pay the interest lost by the council, and were subsequently discharged from office.

With a vacuum at the top, in 1986, Ms Bellos put herself forward - at this point she’d gained some experience through a job at the Greater London Council - and was duly elected as only the second black woman, after Merle Amory in Brent, to lead a council.

Tough decisions

Then, in 1988, she was landed with the unenviable job of implementing a 25 per cent cut in funding from Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative government.

When making the budget, Ms Bellos had her officers carry out the first ever equality impact assessment, asking for information on who would be affected if each and every service was cut.

A certain amount of zeal enters her voice. ‘Some things were so easy to cut,’ she exclaims. For example, the council stopped its free skip service, mostly used by homeowners in wealthier Streatham. In a scenario that will be all-too-familiar to councillors now, she recalls as she was trying to protect services for the most vulnerable, the more affluent residents lobbied to protect resources they used, such as free swimming pools.

Ms Bellos had a meeting with Michael Howard, then the environment secretary, in an unsuccessful appeal against the deep cuts. They went over the budget line by line, and Mr Howard questioned one large item, a ‘huge’ amount of money that was being spent on a young man with multiple needs.

‘He had been locked in a cupboard under the stairs by his mother for years. When he was found and got out, his level of need,’ says Ms Bellos, before tailing off, emotional, and at one point unable to stop some tears escaping. ‘What the f*** were we going to do? Shoot him?’

‘These were hard decisions,’ she says. ‘But I was very proud of having been able to put my hand on my heart and say, I know who’s affected by this.’

Soon after putting her decisions into action, however, she left her post. Although she does not say so in our interview, this was reportedly due to conflicts within the Labour Party.

She had acquired some critics within her party. According to press reports at the time, Ted Knight, leader of Lambeth Council before Ms Bellos, described her as a ‘conscious agent of the Tory state’, and Labour MP Peter Snape called for her to be expelled from Labour after she criticised racism within the party. Roy Hattersley, then deputy leader of the Labour Party, was also one of her vocal critics.

During her tenure at Lambeth, when the workers who distributed benefits were on strike, she fought to give vulnerable Lambeth residents £14 per week, according to Guardian reports. But Polly Toynbee, a journalist at the paper, wrote: ‘[Ms Bellos] could have been any infuriated Tory leader, plutocratic company boss.’

After politics, Ms Bellos began training others on diversity and how to carry out equality impact assessments, and in 2006, she was awarded an OBE for this work.

‘I was horrified I had been nominated but my partner’s daughter and brother insisted I take it,’ she says.

Progress has been made around diversity, but the issues that plagued the world of housing in the 1980s linger on today. ‘To be perfectly honest it breaks my heart that people haven’t somewhere decent to live,’ says Ms Bellos, her voice breaking. ‘It seems to me a human right. How can you flourish when you don’t even have [a secure place to live], never mind security of tenure?’

Strong opinions

Ms Bellos still doesn’t hold any prisoners. On the bedroom tax (‘No doubt [thought up over] some bloody dinner party conversation, don’t you think?’), on David Cameron (‘Incompetent’), and on moves towards renting affordable homes on shorter tenancies (‘If you believe as I do that shelter permanency is a right, then you would do something entirely different to what the government is doing’).

In the 1980s, Ms Bellos strenuously resisted the right to buy in Lambeth. ‘They made us sell [the homes], but they wouldn’t let us use the money that was gained to build new homes,’ she states. It is perhaps a mark of how policies once considered outlandish are now mainstream, that these days the coalition requires councils to replace each home sold under right to buy, but Ms Bellos remains sceptical if this will work in practice. ‘Don’t hold your breath,’ she says.

One previous colleague who has known her since the 1980s observes that contrary to publicity, ‘the great thing about Linda [was] she was open, and she became more and more open to different ways of looking at things’.

Surrounded by her dogs, flowers and numerous business awards for her training work, Ms Bellos could easily have become less radical over the years, but when asked if she has mellowed, she doesn’t hesitate to reply with a characteristically defiant ‘no’.

Bad press

In the late 1980s the tabloids reported almost daily on what they saw as the ‘loony’ policies of English councils, and Linda Bellos (or ‘Loony Linda’ as The Sun referred to her) was a prime target.

Much of the coverage didn’t focus on Ms Bellos’ politics, however, but her sexuality. One Sun story introduced Ms Bellos as: ‘36, divorced and a mother of two. But she proudly proclaims: “I’m a lesbian and proud of it!”’

In 1986, just after she was elected, a Times piece described her as: ‘Miss Linda Bellos - extreme-sounding, female, black and therefore the new leader of Lambeth Council.’

Even Polly Toynbee of the Guardian wrote a stinging profile in 1987, saying she appeared ‘hatchet-faced’. She also reported that Ms Bellos received daily hate mail.

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