In a time where talk turns sporadically to the nation’s housing stock, and how we’re not building enough, especially for those on low incomes, it’s worth remembering that 80 years ago Leeds had a solution. In these days of the bedroom tax the days of compassionate government (when local councils had the freedom to make their own decisions) should definitely be remembered.
Jenkinson’s Bug Van. It’s a term that will only mean something to those of a certain age. But it was a signal of a brighter, cleaner future for many, and a commemoration of someone who had a vision for the poor people of Leeds in the 1930s.
Back then, Leeds still had plenty of slums. More back-to-back house than anywhere else in the country. They weren’t the homes fit for heroes promised by the Government at the end of World War 1, but then those back-to-backs were owned by private landlords who were under no legal obligation to improve their properties.
The Conservative-run Leeds council made a start. By 1926 they’d started building in places like Cross Gates and Meanwood, and by 1930 had put up 7,000 houses (not all for rent, though). But a start was all it was, and one beyond the means of most poor families, as rents in these new places started at 16 shillings a week (80p) compared to 25p (25p) for a back-to-back, which might well have been vermin-infested and plagued with damp.
Three years later the council changed to a Labour majority and a councillor named Rev. Charles Jenkinson became chairman of the housing committee. His aim was to demolish 30,000 slums and rehouse the people in airy, green new estates. He was a firebrand, devoted to his cause and most definitely a friend to the poor family – this was, of course, the time of the Great Depression.
He formed the Housing Department, which in three years built 15,000 properties and created a total of 24 estates in Leeds. Even more importantly, he created a sliding scale rent scheme – those with nothing, paid nothing, while those with a decent income paid the full rent. It opened up new council housing to the very poor for the first time. But there was more to it, matching the needs of tenants to the house available, so each estate had a mix of housing from two to five bedrooms, with flats for older people and even ‘sunshine houses’ for those whom doctors said needed more air.
The first result of Jenkinson’s ambitious plan was the Gipton estate, where the first tenants moved in during 1934, followed by Seacroft, Halton Moor and then Belle Isle. Which brings us to the bug van – Jenkinson’s Bug Van as it was affectionately known.
The old houses were filled with bugs of all kinds. One thing no one wanted was to transfer them to these bright new properties. So every piece of furniture had to go into the bug van before it was allowed in the council house.
That led to something else. Seeing the terrible, tattered state of the furniture, Jenkinson introduced another scheme that allowed tenants to buy utility furniture – nothing special, but better than anything they owned – on higher purchase, a small sum tacked on to the weekly rent.
Did it work? Yes and no. Many of the tenants felt that their old communities had been broken up and that the estates offered little in communities. Some didn’t want to live so far from the centre of the city (which brings up Quarry Hill flats, something too big to put into this piece), and in retrospect many wonder whether these estates were such a good idea.
But compared to the places where so many had lived, places that desperately needed to be torn down and that contributed to the ill-health of generations, Jenkinson and his bug van offered a great, last improvement. The man himself went on the become Chairman of Stevenage New Town Development Corporation at the princely salary of £1,500 a year – a very large sum for the time, most of which he gave away to charities.
Chris Nickson is the author of the Richard Nottingam novels, all set in Leeds during the 1730s. The sixth, Fair and Tender Ladies, has just been published.