William Barnes: a radical vision

William Barnes was Director of Housing when I joined Camden as a fresh-faced housing management trainee over thirty years’ ago. From his sixth floor office in Bidborough Street, just south of St Pancras Station, he managed an empire of 40,000 homes. Four floors below, the Chairman of Housing, a councillor called Ken Livingstone, had his own office in the department (a rather radical notion at that time) and was often to be seen eating alone in the staff canteen wearing his trademark safari jacket.

To most of his staff, Barnes seemed a rather remote and patrician figure, but I’ve just read his obituary in The Times (he died in July aged 92) and it reveals that he was a truly radical and visionary Director, who made a lasting contribution to London’s housing. He arrived at Camden in 1970 when waiting lists were growing and realised that the Borough had to take a comprehensive view of housing that embraced all of Camden’s population, not just the service provided to council tenants. He developed one of the best housing aid centres in London and led a massive programme of municipalisation, buying up whole streets of Victorian terraces and converting them into flats, often using compulsory purchase powers. Many General Improvement Areas and Housing Action Areas were created, where enforcement action against poor private sector landlords was taken and environmental improvements carried out. He also ran a huge building programme of 3,000 homes a year, delivered by the Council’s own architects’ department.

Barnes also felt passionately about training and staff development. He recruited many bright graduates – many of them now senior figures in the housing world – and set up a housing trainee scheme.

William Barnes was the son of the Bishop of Birmingham and educated at Westminster School and Trinity College Cambridge where he took a First in classics. A lifelong Quaker, he was a wartime conscientious objector and served with the Friends Ambulance Unit. After the war he became a civil servant and was involved in setting up the London Business School. He had a passionate belief in mixed communities and Camden had a policy of buying sites in the richer parts of the Borough, such as Hampstead and parts of Holborn, to build award-winning estates, often to the chagrin of local wealthy residents who found themselves living next door to people they saw as undesirables. But take a walk around many parts of Camden today and you will see the legacy of this vision – well- kept and well-designed council blocks jeek by jowl with private mansion blocks and expensive Victorian houses. It is not surprising that a Camden address is one of the most sought-after in London.

The remarkable thing is that he did all this during the seventies – a decade of recession and political instability, much like our current decade. He built new homes on a scale that is almost unimaginable today and provided a comprehensive housing service that is a foundation stone of our present approach. It is quite a legacy. Now, with little to distinguish between Labour and Conservative housing policy it makes me wonder if we have any comparable visionary figures in our sector?

(First published at Inside Housing 7th November 2011)

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