I have been cataloguing the archive of the Livingston Development Corporation for eight months now. The collection is great on the technical detail, on the why and how the town was built, on who made the big decisions, but sometimes you get the hankering for a personal touch – a view of the town that has an opinion. Because the Corporation was, well, a Corporation, much of its documentation can be a little dry, efficient, business like and very much to the point – and even, dare I say it, a little self-congratulatory.
However, a couple of months ago, whilst cataloguing the records of the Housing Department, I came across the “Reports of the Assistant Housing Visitor.” They don’t sound that promising, but these turned out to be almost diary like entries made monthly by two or three women employed as Assistant Housing Visitors. From 1970 onwards and through the 1970s these women (they were all women) visited new tenants in the town and make sure they were settling in okay, to ask if they had any problems or any issues; and, unfortunately an all too common a problem, to help them find ways to pay their rent arrears. They ended up acting, in a town with limited community facilities and services, as quasi-social workers.
These reports, far from being brisk businesslike collection of stats and targets, give a wonderful insight of Livingston in the 1970s, and of the problems the community faced and overcame. For example, something that I come across time and again is the problems caused by dampness in Corporation housing, this arose due to poor industrial construction techniques when building vast quantities of housing in a short space of time. I’ve come across a good many technical reports as to why the dampness happened, but in the visitors reports the issue is made far more human.
“The main complaints come from tenants in Bison flats who are “humbugged” by “dampness”. In most cases they are using their storage heaters properly and keeping their windows open slightly as they have been instructed – this does not seem to cure the trouble.”
The Corporation, in the early days, was reluctant to accept that their choice of building construction was to blame, and instead chose to tell people that because they had never used central heating before, it was their fault the wallpaper was hanging in damp shreds off the wall.
Another related issue was the cost of heating. Many of the early houses in Livingston were installed with electric storage heaters when electricity was cheap – then electricity prices rocketed. This was a pressing concern for many years (and one it looks like we are all going to have to face again). In 1972 the housing visitor wrote –
“There is a great deal of concern and anxiety among tenants over electricity bills. In many cases, money is not saved towards this bill at all – it is the ‘great unknown’ and panic ensues when it arrives…. for most people… the main problem is the insecure feeling caused by a large, long term fluctuating bill. The cards provided by the SSEB for calculating weekly costs are not widely used… most because people people would not really believe them or do NOT want to know about their bills, hoping they will be smaller when they arrive. “
In 1974 the visitor recorded that –
“I found that a great many of my tenants have solved their fuel bill problem this winter with some ingenuity. Several tenants living in the area arrange to visit one house for two days, then another house for two days, the person they visit has a warm house whilst the visitors can leave their heating off.”
Despite this novel solution, however, the cost of heating remained an issue for many years. In March 1977-
“It is generally accepted that this is the most quarrelsome time of the year and this is assuredly born out by the number of tenants who have sent for me because of family feuding, not necessarily about rent arrears, most because of the excessively high gas and electric bills… whilst Mrs is wondering how on earth she managed to accumulate such a bill, Mr is wishing he never got married, or blaming her for being extravagant.”
There are several more entries in the reports about this issue, it dragged on for years – however, the reports provide such a breadth of insights into life in the 1970s, it is worth moving on. There is another area of insight that the reports can give – into the social and economic mores of the time.
“It is now obvious that a percentage of women work either part time of full time and that it is not possible to make contact with them during working hours.”
This was a time when it was still thought that men were the breadwinners, and women were the housewives, though times were a-changing. But even then, there were obvious issues with unemployment in the early 1970s.
“It would appear that there is a shortage of jobs for the under twenties as well as part-time work for women and according to tenants, the Department of Employment & Productivity hold out very little hope of any immediate improvement. Two cases of men having given up their jobs to move to Livingston came to light. This could be a mounting problem with all its attendant difficulties.”
And, by 1977, problems with inflation –
“this past year has been one of inflation and its attendant problems. After dealing with rent arrears problems last winter, I suggested to tenants that they should try to keep their rent a little in credit each month to try to help out with the problem months… it would be wise to stock up… as a buffer against the winter and the increased prices.”
The reports also record an issue that was unique to New Towns. The New Town Blues. Because The main reason people moved to Livingston was “high standard of housing provided by the Livingston Development Corporation, probably the main reason why families choose to come, and remain in Livingston.” Housing in Livingston was newer, cleaner, warmer and better than the old slums and tenements of Glasgow, where many had come from, but these people left behind established communities to move to a town that had only existed since 1962, the first residents – “the pioneers” – moving to Livingston from 1964 onwards, moved to a building site, a place of “dust in the summer and mud in the winter”. It was a town that had no established community; no established groups or societies; no cafes, cinemas, parks, or sports fields. Loneliness was rife.
“I have been discussing the problem of loneliness with quite a number of tenants. This problem is known as the New Town Blues and is widely recognised. Its avoidance lies in the development of a sense of community.”
This is something that the residents of Livingston tackled with relish. From zero in 1964, by 1973 there were two hundred and thirty clubs and societies, one for every 100 residents in Livingston. Community spirit in Livingston had flourished.
Finally, as well as the ‘big picture’ the reports also capture the smaller details that show that perhaps life doesn’t change as much as we think –
“Another dangerous game of the children’s is to get boards and slide down the steep grassy slope from Eden Drive to the main road near the bus stop. I have seen children rolling down the slope which is quite steep and stopped my car to shout at them. One false move and these kiddies are straight under a passing car.”
Or, taking a break from work for a relaxing thirty minutes,
“the light entertainment of the month was caused through a tenant who had a hive of wild bees in her garden, these have now been removed by LDC… however I spent a quite pleasant half an hour watching the bees at close quarters, from the number of bees and the size of the mound I imagine it was quite a large hive.”
This remark attracted an annotation from the housing visitor’s boss Leslie Higgs, “Time available for this?”
Bosses are bosses, I suppose, no matter the decade.
The Housing Visitor Reports are the subject of an ongoing blog about Livingston in the 1970s which can be found at http://newtownlivingston.blogspot.co.uk/
Aidan Haley, Project Archivist (Cataloguing), Livingston New Town: From Plan to Community, 1962-2012.