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When housing policy was truly ambitious: in memory of William Barnes

Quite by chance, yesterday I came across a copy of a wonderful tribute to William Barnes,
who died in July age 92, written by his son Peter. In my first public sector job, as Housing Research Officer in Camden from 1977, William was my ultimate boss as Director of Housing for the borough, a job he had held since 1971.
It was a different era, when housing policy was truly ambitious and people not only aspired to achieve the end of housing need but believed it was within grasp. I will let
Peter take up the story from the date of William’s appointment as Camden’s Housing Director.

“The challenge was to provide adequate social housing for a rising population of claimants, in a borough already densely populated, while taking account of other residents. My father addressed himself to the challenges with imagination and energy.
First, he set the goal of a ‘comprehensive housing service’ for the whole borough. In other words, he was concerned not just with social tenants but with housing issues for the borough as a whole. Second he pushed for a vigorous programme of redevelopment and rehabilitation of the borough’s housing stock. And third, he pursued a policy of ‘municipalization’, compulsorily purchasing unoccupied houses for conversion into council flats.
This approach was undeniably controversial. Middle class homeowners did not always welcome council tenants living next door. And the price tag was high.
The Thatcher Government, elected in 1979, cut funding for Camden and ordered the sale of council houses. Cuts and sales made a comprehensive housing service untenable and my father resigned.
Nonetheless, in my father’s decade in Camden, he made considerable progress towards his goals. He had professionalized the housing service, recruiting talented graduate staff. He was adding 3,000 new homes a year to the housing stock, and had almost eliminated the housing waiting list. Thousands of families were moved into safer, healthier, more modern accommodation. And municipalisation created mixed communities, limiting the ghettoization of housing between rich and poor, and reducing the need for building bespoke housing estates. Even thirty years on, my father’s work is still discernable in the streets and communities of Camden.”

William Barnes was a life-long pacifist and a conscientious objector during the war, serving on the front line with the Friends Ambulance Unit. He later served in the Ministry of National Insurance when the welfare state was being built, and as Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Board of Trade. Before his career jump into housing, he was the Secretary to the Board that established the London Business School. As a civil servant of the old school, he nevertheless seemed to rub along well with Camden’s Labour councillors: during his time Frank Dobson and Ken Livingstone had stints as leader and chair of housing respectively, and I suspect he quietly shared many of their objectives
if not their style.
The number of homes being provided during William’s time at Camden is almost beyond
imagination now, despite the country being so much richer. William was a modest
and self-effacing man who worked with good committed politicians to build an
extraordinary department that achieved so much, until Thatcher came along. He
demonstrated what could be achieved if the will exists, and I would be delighted if I qualified as one of his ‘talented graduate staff’.
William Peter Ward Barnes, 1919-2011
Tribute by his son Peter, Church of St John the Evangelist, Newtimber.  26 July 2011.