For almost nine decades, with only a brief pause during the war, Jack Haddock has lived in the same house in Walsall.
He and his late father, who first received the keys from the council in 1927, have never missed a week of rent. Their residence at the three-bedroom semi on Webster Road spans almost the entire history of social housing as we know it – a rare symbol of stability in a system now wobbling at its foundations.
Haddock, who is perhaps Britain's most loyal council tenant, is 86 and lives alone. He rides his ancient bicycle every day, eats little and often, starting with five Weetabix for breakfast, and has not seen a doctor for anything more serious than a flu jab for 40 years. He has no siblings and never married, partly, he says, because he is wedded above all else to his home.
"Twice I was due to marry and I've backed out," Haddock says with a strong Black Country accent in his sitting room, which is plastered with photos of old Walsall. An amateur historian in retirement, he has also supplied thousands of images to the town archives. "One girl wanted me to move up the Delves [in south Walsall] but I said, 'no, Jean, I'm not leaving here'. We parted amicably in about 1958."
Haddock's father, also called Jack Haddock, was a maintenance man on the trams. Like his son, he lacked a full education but worked all his life, while never earning enough to save for a mortgage. After serving with the Royal Artillery in the First World War he met and married Jack's mother, who worked in Walsall's once-thriving leather industry. They lived in crowded conditions in terraced housing with no plumbing.
After the war, in 1919, Lloyd George's Liberal government passed the Housing Act, which for the first time required councils to provide subsidised housing to those in need. It triggered a building boom in the 1920s and established the principle of housing as a social service. In Walsall, the Haddocks applied for one of the first new homes, supplying references from the Army, church and their employers. In part mindful that a baby would support their case, they had Jack.
"To mum and dad, this was paradise when we moved in," Haddock says, surveying the same four walls from his sofa. "There was a big coal fire then, not this gas one, and the toilet was half inside, but we put doors on it. And the spirit around here was marvellous. In the summer, 30 of us kids would cycle all the way to bloody Lichfield to watch the mainline expresses. Domestically. we're better off with central heating and all that now but, socially, we don't know half the neighbours they change so often."
Walsall, which lies 10 miles north of Birmingham in the West Midlands, is home to one of the highest concentrations of social housing in the country. A quarter of households (24.1 per cent) in the town are socially rented, compared with 17.6 per cent across England and Wales. Ten years ago, Walsall, like many local authorities, transferred its housing stock to not-for-profit associations. Haddock's landlord is Walsall Housing Group (WHG), which owns almost 20,000 homes – the majority of the town's social property and one in five of all its homes.
When Haddock's father died in 1963, 10 years after his mother's death, the council assumed he would go on to fill the house with his own family, so let him inherit the tenancy for life at the age of 36. The war had disrupted Haddock's schooling and he went on to drive lorries for the RAF before finding employment at a Walsall metalworks. Since retirement, he has paid rent using his state pension and housing benefits.
For WHG and its director of housing services, Rob Gilham, Haddock is a source of pride, a model citizen and the perfect customer. But as Gilham and his tenants face the gravest threat he can remember in his 25-year career in social housing, Jack is also an unwitting part of a problem. Because Walsall, like much of Britain, has run out of homes, including family properties like those on Webster Road.
In Gilham's office at WHG's headquarters in Walsall's vaunted "Gigaport office corridor", conversation turns, inevitably, to the so-called bedroom tax. Since April, the Government has cut housing benefit for tenants deemed to have unused rooms, despite an acute shortage of alternative homes. Pensioners including Haddock are exempt, but WHG says 3,500 of its households are affected, losing 14 per cent of benefits if they have one "spare" room, or 25 per cent if there are two or more. The majority work full-time on low salaries, using benefits to help meet the soaring cost of living.
So far, a third of Walsall's bedroom tax targets – more than 1,000 households – have slipped into rent arrears. "They're really struggling," Gilham says. His association provides financial advice but, he adds, "it's very difficult to see how the best money manager in the world can balance the books. We've also got just under 300 people who at the moment are not engaging with us, who aren't paying. We know that's a similar picture for a lot of other associations".
In September, the National Housing Federation surveyed 51 housing associations in England. Just more than half of their residents who had been hit by bedroom tax could not pay rent between April and June. A quarter were in arrears for the first time. The federation, whose members house more than five million people, estimated that if the figures were replicated nationwide, more than 330,000 households could already be struggling to pay rent.
Gilham says WHG has not yet visited the "last resort" – evictions – but warns that this is a real risk. There are calls in Scotland and elsewhere to outlaw evictions prompted by the bedroom tax, but there is no protection yet. Meanwhile, WHG has a waiting list of more than 4,000 people who need homes. This is a relatively low number. The London Borough of Newham has fewer social properties than Walsall (17,500) but a waiting list of 24,500 households. Many may never be housed.
The solution: new homes, but it gets worse. In Walsall, where the new property-price boom has barely registered, houses cost significantly more to build than their market value. Gilham could make up the difference in subsequent rent, but WHG must charge "affordable rent" – 80 per cent of market rates. In a town such as Walsall, market rates are already very low, limiting the income that the association can achieve by rent alone at a time when a growing number of tenants can't pay it.
Gilham would traditionally rely on building grants from central government, but these are disappearing. He says that as recently as 2010, WHG received around £60,000 per home in grants. Last year, grants dropped to less than half that amount for similar projects. In 2015, WHG is expecting to receive just £15,000 per home.
As a result of myriad threats to its finances, WHG has built 500 homes in the past three years, just 20 per cent of the number it says it needs to have a hope of meeting demand. Nationally, the housing shortage has reached a critical point. The total national demand for new houses is around 270,000 a year, according to a report by the housing charity Shelter. But in 2011, just 114,000 houses were built. England is now building fewer houses than in any peacetime year since the 1919 reforms that gave the Haddocks a home.
On Webster Road, Haddock prefers to stay out of politics but he votes, if not always for the same party, and reads his local newspaper. "I don't understand it really because I've been brought up in an age when jobs were available and if you couldn't make enough, like me, who's never had more than a couple of hundred in the bank, you had benefits and help with your house. That's the way it works."
Haddock is grateful that he does not face the bedroom tax, the biggest immediate threat to WHG's most vulnerable tenants. Gilham is sanguine about the challenges WHG faces, but says: "If the Government is trying to address the issue of housing need by recognising people perhaps aren't housed appropriately, the bedroom tax is a very blunt tool because people have very little choice. It doesn't work."
David Orr, at the National Housing Federation, goes further: "As arrears begin to rise and rise there will come a point when there will be no alternative other than to seek evictions. Then homeless households will represent to local authorities with no mechanism to provide housing. The thing driving this now is the bedroom tax. I can't begin to describe how frustrated I am at this monumentally stupid piece of public policy."
Outside, Haddock, who boasts that he can hold his breath for a minute, cycles up and down the street for the photographer. "I ain't going bloody faster if you want me to stay upright," he says. "You wanna ride of this bike, it's a real good machine." He says he never gets lonely and is determined to die in the only place he has called home. He wants his ashes to be scattered on the site of an old engine shed up the road, where he developed his love of trains as a child.
While Haddock looks fondly on the past, he has also embraced change in Walsall and still documents it using his old Pentax camera. "It's progress, you've got to accept it," he says. Before he goes back inside for his lunch, a chicken and tomato sandwich, he confounds expectations, perhaps, after starting an anecdote with the line: "Now we come to the immigrants..."
He continues: "My neighbour next door, the Muslim. Now the people there moved out about 50 years ago and this Mr Qureshi was there one day and he's seen me. And I said: 'Who are you looking for?' and he said, 'I've been offered this house by the council'. He and his wife and little lads had been having a battering from these racists and all that, you see. I said to him, 'now, Mr Qureshi, you come here, I'm a very broad-minded man, you'll be safe'. We've always fused together up this street, never any trouble. And we've been great friends to this day. I'm sort of part of the family."