Shortlife stories: Trace Newton-Ingham

Trace Newton-Ingham
Trace at her home in Clapham’s old town

By Kaye Wiggins

Some of Lambeth’s more desirable properties, including historic cottages in Clapham’s Old Town, have since the late 1970s been home to “shortlife” tenants. The residents pay low rents – in some cases, £10 a week – but are responsible for the costs of maintaining the houses themselves.

However, the arrangement is under threat, as Lambeth council is selling the houses at auction – which, in some cases, means evicting tenants. The council claims the money will be used to refurbish other social housing.

In the first of a Brixton Blog series on shortlife housing, tenant Trace Newton-Ingham tells her story.  

I came down to London from Norfolk in 1978, with a friend, and was trying to get into art college. I was 18.

We were trying to find rental property and it was impossible to find a flat. All the horror stories of trying to find accommodation that you hear now, were exactly the same then. We couldn’t find anywhere that we could afford at all.

And then one day a life model at my friend’s art school said, there are some empty houses in Clapham and the council are handing keys out for them.

The council had a lot of houses that had been scheduled for demolition but there had been a big fight to get them listed by the Clapham Society. As soon as that happened it meant they couldn’t demolish them any more.

So they suddenly had houses scattered around the place that they couldn’t do anything with. Rather than spend money doing them up, they chose to let them go to co-ops and have no responsibility and no financial outlay. It meant we could live there for free, but we were responsible for doing them up.

So that’s how we ended up here. Being 18, we didn’t have a clue how anything worked.

At first we were in a different house on this street. It was terrible. It had an outside tap and just one working electricity socket. The winter was appalling. There would be frost inside the house because it was so cold.

We moved into another house on this road, and then into this one in 1980. That friend of mine is moving out tomorrow, because of the council’s approach to short-life housing. We’ve lived next door to each other since we were 17.

Anyway, in 1980 when we moved to this house, we formed a co-op. That was because Lambeth council said, form yourself into a co-op and you can stay in the housing. Back then, some of the radical councillors were very pro co-ops.

We immediately started paying rent into the central co-op funds. We all paid the same rent. I can’t remember how much it was, but I think it was about £5 a week. We just plucked the figure out of the air because it was an amount everyone could afford. It meant we had enough money to maintain the houses and refurbish them.

After a couple of years I took on the treasurer’s role at the co-op. That was when I started to appreciate that we weren’t a permanent co-op. So we started discussing becoming one. By the end of the 80s this was very feasible.

We went down the route of officially becoming permanent. We just assumed it would happen. We attended all the right training courses and did everything we were supposed to do.

At the time, everyone looked down their noses at us and said, how can you bear to live in housing like that?

It was embarrassing to begin with that we lived in these houses because people would walk past and talk about them being derelict, and actually, you know, we lived there. It was upsetting but we stuck with it and ended up with houses that we really loved and that we’ve taken care of.

It felt very safe here. For me, that was a big part of the positive side of living here. I had friends who lived on council estates and they’d be scared to go out the doors. I lived on council estates when I was a kid, and I was scared to go out the door. It was so brilliant not to have that fear.

Plus, I like doing things to my own house. We felt that they were our houses because we became personally responsible for the maintenance and upkeep. Everything that a homeowner would have, we had, except we didn’t actually own the home.

We had a lot of artists and musicians in the co-op. I’m an artist. By the late 80s I was self-employed, selling my own stuff, though not for vast sums of money.

That was a massive freedom, that the rent was low enough that people could live in these houses in a community that was very supportive and allowed them to do their art and their music. Nobody was knocked for not making a good weekly wage. It was not an issue.

It sounds like a different world, doesn’t it? It’s mad, really.

Anyway, in the mid-nineties, when we were busy with the paperwork for becoming a permanent co-op, the rug was pulled from under our feet.

The permanency, which we saw as a certainty by that time, was removed.

That was a huge shock. We thought we’d done everything right. We’d done what they’d asked us to do. But because we were never allowed to see the licenses we never knew what our legal position was. We were too naïve to realise there could have been big political strategies going on behind the scenes.

By that time, my health had started failing. In about 1992 or 93 it started, and was gradually going downhill. By 1998 I got very ill and since then I’ve not been able to work at all, so any option of working to get a mortgage or anything like that was removed.

Around 1997 or 1998, there was a scheme for a housing association to buy up short life properties. I refused to join the scheme because you had to sign an agreement without knowing how it would work.

Because of that, a council officer told me I’d be evicted within three months. I thought, I’ll stay and see what they do.

That’s what I’m still doing now, really. It’s sort of bloody-mindedness but I can’t stand being told what to do when I can’t see any reason for it.

So from then on, for me, it’s felt precarious. Since then, we get a letter every 2 or 3 years saying, you’re not supposed to be in these houses, we’re going to evict you. In 2007 or 2008 they told us they’d terminated our licenses. We didn’t even know we had licenses!

We’re not paying any rent now. It ground to a gradual halt as we started getting threats of eviction. Nobody knew what was going on, the instability of it, people couldn’t see the point.

I stopped paying rent but I always kept the place up. I spent £1,500 a few years ago getting the roof done and that came out of my pocket, not the co-op’s. I’ve spent about £20,000 or £30,000 doing this place up over the years.

Some people have joined choice-based lettings, the council’s system for giving you housing. I think some people thought, it’s easier if I just go.

I decided not to go, because I hate the way they’ve been treating me. When I feel bullied I just dig my heels in and refuse to give in to what’s being done to me.

This house is worth about £550,000 or £600,000 even though it’s just a two-up, two-down with tiny rooms.

In some ways we’ve been fortunate to live here and in other ways we haven’t, because we have this terrible sense of insecurity which is undermining in every aspect of your life.

I do understand the point councillor Pete Robbins is making when he says you could sell this house and use the money to improve a lot of other social housing, but I don’t think they’re doing that. I’d argue the council can’t maintain their housing stock anyway.

If I thought the money from selling this house was being used properly, and if I was moved into a property that suited me, then in principle I wouldn’t mind.

But the new property would need to be pretty much like this. I have a carer who stays, so I need a two-bed place. I’m being told my carer can sleep in the living room and doesn’t need a bedroom and I think that’s outrageous.

I know I’m getting defensive because I don’t want to move out of my home of 34 years. But I also think Lambeth council is very useless. That’s the problem. I think they’ll get the money and it’s not going to be used on anything good anyway.

The problem is, the way I’ve lived is very different to how social tenants live. If I was moved into social housing now, I’d want them to take out the kitchen and bathroom and I’ll put in my own. It’s a weird mindset and it doesn’t fit with social housing.

I think different people want different things and there’s a one size fits all mentality going on and it doesn’t work. It’s easier administratively for councils. But maybe there should be different forms of housing for people who want different things.

Some people want to be able to ring the housing office if the tap is leaking but other people would not want that. That’s not catered for or even recognised.

There are very positive things in organising housing in small groups, overseen by its residents, and whether it’s these houses in this street or other situations. So I think the council should support that.

I have no idea what will happen to me next. But I have absolutely no intention of moving out.











  1. I have recently moved into the area and now walk past rectory grove every day and was intrigued with regards to the background of these houses. How could such characterful buildings be left to deteriorate and be left in such a state of disrepair! There are young families who would jump at the opportunity to own such a property and REDEVELOP it. If the council gave you these on the basis of maintaining them then you have clearly not met your side of the bargain and I cannot understand why the council is so Laissez Faire about the situation. They should all be evicted and made to fend for themselves and pay market rents or at least join the council waiting lists as every other person has to. It seems to me that this is some relic of some bygone socialist Lambeth council era which needs to be eliminated. I find it disgusting that while many are investing in Clapham to improve the quality of the area we have house like this which in their current state are an eye sore for those who have decided to invest in the future of Clapham. Not only that, but we are in danger of these houses becoming targets for demolition or going beyond a state of repair. What a shame that this housing stock would be lost and replaced by some modern monstrosity in the interests of so called charity!

    • Many of us have made large scale repairs you our homes, inside and out. I find it rather repugnant that you are happy to simply sweep away a whole community some of whom are in their 70s and have been in their home since the 1970s. There are council properties in a worse state of repair, are you going to evict those people too? The streets concerned have a wealth of character and every week we have arts students taking photos of it and walking tours going past it. We have even been and checked by people in the press who love our streets. When they are redeveloped they can lose the character they have, and this has already happened. I pity your uncharitable attitude on this subject quite frankly, you don’t seem to have much regard for people’s lives!

  2. Dan seems to know rather a lot about short life houses and where they are situated so I would say he was a fake. The point is these houses were allocated for social housing and the Labour Council did not have enough money to implement this so they went to Housing Associations, and Co-ops and people did the work themselves. If they are sold off it is a double loss as they are in fact part of Lambeths social housing stock still and their loss will cause an even bigger shortfall. What Peter Robbins and the labour council are saying is they are too expensive but they have no intention of building any more. That sort of logic could stretch a long way as housing everywhere gets more and more expensive other than the most dreadful. The Council is also behaving like a complete bully towards people who have every right to feel aggrieved and threatened as they have lived in what was essentially part of Lambeths housing stock for up to 40 years. Now they are being asked to give up their homes, and join the long queue of homeless and bid on the internet. How more impersonal can you get.

  3. I walk past the old town houses in Lillieshaw road, rectory gardens and rectory grove every day.
    The vast majority of these houses are in a terrible state, most short lifers make no effort to upkeep there houses.

    For those like the lady above, who claims to have spent 20-30k going up her house I’ve the years this investment amounts to about 700 pounds per year. To say that the council has let you stay in a house for less 15 pounds a week and have the cheek to say youve been hard done by is a joke.

    Moreover, none of these short lifers have been means tested. There are many who are earning big salaries who would not even qualify for council housing. And for those who may, like the lady above, why should she be entitled to better housing than others who are equally or more deserving.

    These people, are not like you or I. I’m a labour supporter and have been on the council housing waiting list for 4 years. I have a family and am disabled. I wait patiently for my turn to come knowing that there is a fair allocation system. These people are not in the system and it makes my blood boil that they aren’t means tested, stay rent free, and think the world owes them.

    • Your Labour party was in power ( under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) and did little or nothing in terms of building Council housing. You could direct your anger at the last government instead on picking on this lady.

    • “these people are not like you or I”
      Yes they are – they are exactly like you.
      By chance we became Shortlifers because Shortlife existed, we could equally all have become council tenants back then. The type of housing you can find is pretty chancy in any given era The ‘sweat equity’ in these buildings is not for the faint-hearted. Shortlife makes great common sense.
      Most people don’t want to live on a knife edge of knowing they could be chucked out anytime, we haven’t enjoyed that, we also haven’t been able to do some works on our building because of the short life nature of being here, so you may think they look shabby but that seems a superficial reading of the real situation.
      And how many council properties look in a terrible state? I see plenty.
      I haven’t met any Shortlifers on big salaries, there must be many council tenants who are though because lives and careers evolve. Members of our co-op who earned ok have moved on so we’ve been able to house more homeless people on low income, something we’ve done consistently to this day.

    • So it is fine to throw people out of their houses after up to 20, 30, and, in some cases, up to 40 years?

      It’s ok by you to destroy whole neighbourhoods – neighbourhoods of which local Labour councillors have said: “Your communities have given a welcome permanence and continuity to the area” ?

      Incidentally these are the same Labour councillors who told us:

      “Labour will continue to fight for your right to stay in your home.”

      “It would senseless as well as expensive to evict people only to have to rehouse them again.”

      “Some of these houses would not be standing if it was not for the work of the people living in them.”

      Sadly these opportunistic politcians have now turned their back on us and are encouraging people with ill-informed views such as yours to pick upon people who were extremely vulnerable when they moved in and who remain vulnerable now in many cases (I am talking about pensioners who have been in their homes since the 1970s for example!).

      These are houses that were abandoned by Lambeth Council after being CPO’d for demolition for a few thousand pounds and now will be sold on the open market to private buyers for hundreds of thousands of pounds because of the crazy housing market which is essentially being used against us by the council.

      This means that social housing units will be lost and that people are displacing others on the housing list when they need not have been put in that situation by the council. We don’t want to jump the queue and be rehoused when we have homes! We have homes that, in some cases, are in far better condition than council homes and they are that way because we made them that way!

      Many of us have undertaken major works to our houses, the cost of which has been helped by the fact that many of our neighbours have certain skills and didn’t charge the full market rate for their work – so in actual fact the money we have spent on such things as central heating (you can’t see that from the outside), roofing and so on could have been even more than it was.

      As for rent, we made our own arrangements to go towards repairs in the absence of any involvement with the council, while also spending money on our own homes. At no time do the council seek any meaningful relationship with us, financial or otherwise. Had they come to us and asked for rent to be tenants I am certain that most people would have jumped at the chance to finally have some stability to their housing situation.

      So, for a Labour supporter, you are sounding a bit like a Daily Mail reader, I’m sorry, but get your facts straight. ‘Shortlife’ has long since outgrown that term, you are dealing with long-established communities which you cannot just wipe off the map like this regime is doing. If you treat some if your longest-terms residents this way you have set an appalling precedent.

  4. I can identify with so much of that having lived in Carlton Mansions Housing Co-op for 29 years. I cant understand why the council don’t see us as a home grown asset of theirs to be nurtured, developed and valued. With their ‘co-operative council’ label and arts led regeneration of the area and talk of communities you’d think they’d notice we’ve been doing all of that for decades. Eradicating us shows a total lack of imagination and an unintelligent decision not to recognise what an important cultural heritage shortlife communities bring to a neighbourhood. Exasperating!!!

  5. Lambeth Council have got a nerve referring to themselves as a co-operative and their new website with the .coop domain is an insult to the real co-operatives that were treated so badly for decades. The lies, the deceit, the deliberate obfuscation, the constant shifting of goalposts.

    I admire Lambeth Council’s desire to act co-operatively but they have some bridges to mend and some apologies to make to co-ops who fought to keep co-operative principles alive, to maintain and evolve them and to be diligent caretakers of Lambeth Council property when the same council were being negligent in their duty of care to assets owned by the taxpayers.

    Lambeth Council could learn a lot from the remaining co-ops. So far I don’t see much real co-operation but I do see a lot of marketing of their co-operative image. Not to say that there aren’t people working in Lambeth Council who have good intentions but are probably stymied in their endeavours by the bureaucracy and the marketing department.

Comments are closed.