Third decade: 1984-1994

Finding a new focus

The world was changing dramatically both at home and abroad. The miners’ strike of 1984 struck at the heart of Derwent Housing’s core area across the East Midlands. It divided communities and even families as the government and union leaders locked horns with both sides refusing to yield.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 again emphasised the sacrifices people were prepared to make for freedom of choice without state control of every aspect of their lives.

At home, Margaret Thatcher was returned for a third term in Downing Street but the Iron Lady was beginning to lose her grip on power. The wind of change was gathering force – but Mrs Thatcher was not for turning.

The Iron Lady’s eventual downfall came as her own party saw the need for change, with John Major her surprise successor in 1990. In contrast Derwent Housing continued to identify new markets in the social sector.

Miners Strike March - Silverwood Pit, Rotherham
Miners Strike - Silverwood Pit, Rotherham ©

New way forward

In the early 1980s Derwent’s continued growth was still largely underpinned by funding from the Housing Association Grant (HAG). This funding was now targeted at developing housing for the elderly but also for women fleeing domestic violence and specialist provision for disabled people.

Sheltered housing was an area of significant growth with many new warden assisted schemes being developed up to the early 1990s. At the same time the development of Cavendish Court in 1983 heralded a refocussing on providing new properties within Derby itself.

Derwent Housing Society sought new ways to diversify its operation as a provider of different services enabling it to access other types of funding mirroring the efforts of David Edmonds at the Housing Corporation to reduce the reliance on central funding.

Between 1984 and 1989 it developed homes for shared ownership, houses and flats for affordable rent as well as buying individual properties for conversion into rented accommodation. The vast majority of these were located in and around Derby in places such as Ashbourne and Allestree.

John Martin, chief executive at the time, recalled: “We got involved with shared ownership at the very beginning thinking it was a good way of moving people towards owner-occupied properties which they had previously found unaffordable.”

Moving time for expanding team

Derwent Housing Association logoHaving celebrated its 25th anniversary, Derwent Housing Society changed its name in February 1990 to Derwent Housing Association to remove confusion between a housing society and an association.

Derwent Housing Staff in 1991
Staff outside Phoenix Street offices, 1991

As the organisation continued to expand, it began to outgrow the office at 20 Iron Gate and a new headquarters was needed. In May 1985 Derwent moved into its purpose-built new premises on Phoenix Street. Another five years of growth saw the need for a new £290,000 extension, offering an enlarged reception area to provide a more comfortable waiting area for visitors and tenants.

With John Martin continuing to oversee Derwent’s operation as chief executive, a role he was to fulfil for a remarkable 28 years, the early ‘80s also saw the arrival of his long-serving deputy and corporate services director Paul Wisher while another stalwart Allan Bate had begun his quarter of a century of service as a board member.

Dorothy LePage
Dorothy LePage

Another key figure was Dorothy LePage, a tenant and former Rolls Royce employee who had been a committee member from 1965-1971 before she moved to Worcester. When she returned to Derby in 1976, she re-joined the management committee, becoming chair in 1979. She chaired the housing management sub-committee and personnel sub-committee for many years before handing over as chairman to Peter Saunders in 1989. Dorothy sadly died three years later.

Meeting family needs

The early days of the company had seen a shift from the building of family homes to more flats because local authorities had plenty of three-bedroom houses. Throughout the ‘80s Derwent was affected by the Right to Buy initiative which allowed tenants to buy their homes at a discount. This had a profound effect on housing associations as houses sold much more readily than flats.

Romainian Fundraising 1990
Coal Board property: before and after
But in the latter part of the decade and into the 1990s Derwent returned to building family homes to redress the balance in its building stock.

In 1993 Brian Humphreys had the inspired idea of using unoccupied Coal Board properties to provide affordable housing in communities where it was badly needed. As part of Derwent Housing’s efforts to explore different markets and opportunities they bought 173 such properties, renovating them and bringing them up to a good standard before letting them.

Then came the single biggest social housing scheme in Derby for many years. The 1994 scheme at Shearwater Meadows in Sinfin was a joint venture with four other housing associations. It included 121 new homes for rent and 21 for shared ownership. It came about after a council sponsored competition between a number of housing associations, confirming Derwent Housing’s reputation.

Bringing former industrial brownfield sites back into use was another focus for Derwent Housing and the St Mary’s Wharf development at Chester Green, Derby (also in 1994) was a perfect example of that. A former British Rail goods yard, the site had been derelict for many years and was considered locally as an eyesore. The new development consisted of a mix of 106 flats and houses for rent and also marked Derwent’s move into meeting specialist housing needs with the inclusion of two specially adapted wheelchair-friendly properties.

Specialist care

Diversification into providing housing for specialist needs was a key step in Derwent’s development. It created specially tailored accommodation to meet the needs of people with disabilities, a scheme for frail elderly people and a centre for women who had suffered domestic violence and who had dependent children.

The Herons specialist elderly care home was a landmark development for Derwent Housing Association, broadening its business base while retaining its core principles of creating good quality, affordable homes to meet people’s needs. Opening its doors to residents in February 1993, The Herons moved away from an ‘institutionalised’ environment giving residents all their home comforts with 38 private, fully furnished single rooms with en-suite WC.

Fundraising at The Herons, 1990
Fundraising at The Herons, 1990
The sense of community was generated with regular social activities and the three communal dining rooms while facilities also included outdoor space and a greenhouse where residents could grow plants and flowers. Its service to tenants was underpinned by the launch of their own newsletter – later to become The Phoenix – to ensure they were kept informed of developments.

The significance of The Herons development was marked by the Duke of Gloucester carrying out its official opening in September 1993.

Defended against winds of change

Those steering Derwent Housing throughout the 1980s and into the next decade had seen the need to ensure the business was less reliant on any one sector. They had also been prudent enough to recognise that it was dangerous to depend on the ability and commitment of central government to continue providing the vast bulk of funding for social housing.

That was to prove a wise move as the boom of the Thatcher years came to a shuddering halt on September 16, 1992 – Black Wednesday as it quickly became known. It was the day when John Major’s government finally had to admit defeat in its costly efforts to prop up the value of the pound. These included interest rates of 10 and 12 per cent which had a massive impact on home owners and potential buyers.

Finally, the UK’s closer links with Europe, symbolised by the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 and joining the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) were again diminished as Chancellor Norman Lamont was forced to announce the withdrawal of sterling from the ERM as it fell below its agreed minimum value. This, along with efforts to prop up the pound, cost the UK billions and would eventually end Conservative control for years to come. Despite the national economic turmoil however, Derwent’s commitment to evolving the business and broaden its services meant it could continue to push ahead.