Colin's Cornucopia

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Chapter 17


It was autumn of 1996 when I first decided to do something positive about the area in which I lived. I and my father and grandfather had lived in the same house for 45 years and had turned it from a skeleton into a very comfortable home. It was one of the largest houses in the district and in a more salubrious area would be worth a lot of money.

Grandfather had gone to a sale in 1951 with the intention of buying some light industrial property on the site opposite and bought the Bungalo on the spur of the moment. It had two electric sockets and around 10 ceiling lights. We expanded it from 8 to 13 rooms during the next 30 years and finished with around 30 lights and 100 electric sockets. The provision of plaster to walls, central heating, a garage, pathways, and five extra rooms, many with fitted furniture, occupied a substantial part of my spare time. I finally decided the house was liveable around 1990.

In 1980 my son left school and, in a year of around 140 pupils, exactly four had jobs to go to. The early eighties were disastrous for school leavers and I gave my son and three of his friends a paid summer employment re-roofing the bungalo. It was a massive task for four sixteen year olds to undertake. They were all going on to college in the autumn and were glad of the money. I also employed a skilled builder to guide and instruct them but he chopped his thumb off in a circular saw on the first day. This only put him out of action for a few days but I had to help out and spent much of the next eight weeks on the roof.

We stripped it completely, felted and lathed it and replaced the original tiles. We had to buy about 100 replacement tiles but with a massive roof of around 15,000 tiles this was a fine achievement for four young lads. We were very lucky and had no rain throughout except for a couple of fairly short thunderstorms. I topped out the coping-stones late one night in September. Nick and I enjoyed crawling around the roof and finished the top, removed the ladders and tidied up just as it started to rain. We had finished just in time.

This was typical of many of the jobs we did and we went on then to build three extra rooms in the upper story and turn a bungalo into a house. It is still known as the bungalo to this day but has nearly as much space upstairs as down.

From Decimal day in 1972 until 1988 we had a family dog called Penny. She had been bought by grandma for her grandchildren and the dog stayed with us when grandma emigrated. She was well loved and Nick and I used to take her a walk every night at about eleven. It was during these walks that we started encountering petty criminals. It seemed there was always somebody up to something.

I went to court as a police witness on several occasions and became very disillusioned with the workings of the criminal justice system. It was heavily weighted in favour of the criminals. Guys I had watched commit crimes got off because I was not prepared to lie and so smart lawyers asked awkward questions that I could not answer other than honestly which gave sufficient doubt to ensure acquittal.

At the same time many of our long-term neighbours were moving out. I formed a Neighbourhood Watch and at the initial meeting almost all of my nine neighbours attended. Five years later only two of those neighbours remained and all the other housed had been converted to short-term lets.

Our family had lived very happily in this house for 45 years but now it was beginning to look like time to move out. One day a leaflet came through the door that described the problems of the area in familiar terms and seemed to have something positive to say about it. I returned the leaflet and soon after attended my first meeting of local Residents’ Association.

The meetings were held in the upstairs room of the Malt Shovel in Spon End. This was in a row of cottages that dated back at least to the 16th century. The village had its roots in the formation of a leper hospital in the 13th century by the Earl of Chester who had built the hospital to care for one of his knights who had caught the dread disease on a crusade. The leper hospital survived for about two hundred years when it was moved to a monastery in Alcester. The Chapel survived until the land was developed in the middle of the nineteenth century and gave its name to the Chapelfields district.

The landlord of the Malt Shovel had found an ancient unpaid bill presented by a former landlord to Royalist soldiers billeted in his inn. He presented it to the Queen, promising to give the proceeds to charity, but HRH declined so he declared independence and hung a modified copy of the Declaration of Independence in his bar and many of his clients signed it. This set the tone for the challenging way in which we were to deal with the local council over the next five years.

Within the next three months I had my ears checked three times. The high end of my hearing has suffered but it appears that my hearing must have been particularly acute as a youngster as even with advancing years it is still very good. The problem was that I could not hear the conversation in a noisy bar. I had never been a pub animal and this new experience combined with the loss of the upper frequencies continued to plague me. I discovered much of the problem was that many of the people were using a foreign language. They were speaking politic. The vocabulary was full of buzz words, acronyms and peculiar phrases which engineers were not used to. For the first three or four months I sat and listened and said nothing.

Slowly I began to understand the conversations and to arrange after-meeting conversations to suit myself. Slowly I began to understand the issues and realised that the people in this group had a lot of knowledge, contacts and competence. The thing they lacked was business experience and time to do the enormous amount of work required.

I started taking up issues and writing letters to lobby our position with various local councillors, but much more importantly, directly with council officers. The leader of the group was Fred who was only three years older than my son. But his experience in the political scene vastly exceeded mine. Fred and I lived near each other and soon formed an alliance. He handled strategic matters and I did the practical work. We also often acted Nice-guy-Nasty-guy routines with Fred taking the part of Mr.Nasty. This was not because he was nasty but he did like straight talking and to shoot from the hip while, although I am equally forthright, the years have mellowed me somewhat and taught me that many things can better be obtained by a less direct approach. The partnership worked well for several years.

We took up issues such as bulb and tree planting on a small local park, and traffic calming by the provision of traffic humps and 20mph signs on several local roads. The group had, prior to my involvement, saved a local Victorian school building from demolition and we spent a lot of time and effort trying to bring this into community use. The local school and falling rolls was always an issue and the local council estate became a major centre for drug dealing and bad behaviour.

I continued to learn about the issues of the community, local organisations and the City Council. I learned about activism, community organisations, funding regimes, city politics and how issues are handled within the council. It was in October 1997 that I was proposed by Fred as chair of the Community Forum and took up an appointment that lasted for four years. The first issues we took up with the local council were the subway that connects our area with the centre of the city. The Coventry ring road had been built in the 1960’s and completely surrounds the city and is a quite useful tool for car drivers. Van drivers hate it because it is tied into a weird inner city circulation system that makes it virtually impossible for anyone to work out how to get into the city centre. After 30 years I still cannot work it out.

While the ring road is reasonably friendly to car drivers it is a diabolical menace to pedestrians and has effectively strangled the city centre and totally cut off the areas immediately outside the ring road. It has created a rotten doughnut that is withering year by year. The access across the ring-road is through tunnels which are dark and dirty and have the perception of danger although it has to be said that that is a perception rather than a reality. They are not particularly dangerous, statistically, although that may be because nobody uses them after dark.

The area has changed in recent years from a pleasant residential extension to the city centre into a sleazy bedsit land. The driving forces for this are firstly divorce and the booming demand for single accommodation. The growth of Coventry and Warwick Universities has forced a huge demand for student accommodation. Many houses have been bought by parents and converted to bedsits and retained as rental opportunities for ever after.
The result of this fundamental change in the population makeup has been to drastically reduce school rolls, close most local shops and services and has led to increase in crime as students tend to be soft targets for burglars. Properties are generally not well maintained and conversions are often shoddy and not in keeping with the architectural character of the Victorian area.

While fighting these causes we developed the Forum and various local associations into well-respected organisations. The purpose of the Forum was to knit them into a coherent body with a more-or-less common agenda.


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