I met Linda when she showed me around the new Erdington Wellbeing Hub, 196 High Street Erdington, B23 6SJ, and was delighted to learn that, as well as being a recognised Community Association, Witton Lodge has invested widely in their Flourishing Communities commitment, providing health and wellbeing services, housing and benefits advice, digital skills, employability, carers and domestic violence support, to name but a few. The Wellbeing Hub is open to all who need it - not just the Witton Lodge’s own Tenants - and is truly an exemplar of community investment.
Linda is in her 70s and looks and walks like a woman in her 30s. She’s known in the community and is highly regarded by all from residents to police, Councillors and businesses alike.
I’d heard about Linda from colleagues at the University Centre for Urban Regeneration and from staff, volunteers, and Board members.
They told me:
“Linda does not mess about, she does not suffer fools but has a heart of pure gold.”
She was clearly someone I wanted to interview for our Woman2Watch series.
Welcome Linda Hines:
When I asked her to tell me about her journey her very first words were:
“I love my life!”
“I love Mondays”
“You make your own happiness – I love the fact I have no idea what’s coming”.
A JOURNEY TO SELF THROUGH COMMUNITY LED HOUSING
In 1977 Linda was the wife of a disabled husband and mother of 2 children. She describes herself as having low self-esteem, no confidence and no social networks.
“My job was to look after my family.” She said.
Today, she’s the Chair of one of the most renowned Community Led housing initiatives in the land – the Association owns and manages 200 homes, provides a range of flourishing community services, supporting the local estate and the wider community of North Birmingham, as well as employing a 43 strong, workforce. The estate is conservatively valued at £11 million.
And it started with a no!
In 1977, Linda and her family bought a 3 bedroomed terraced house which was formerly owned by the council. These houses, locally known as “Boot” houses, were named after the builder, Sir Henry Boot, whose company built more than 50,000 homes between WWI and WWII to supply the escalating housing shortage. These houses were built fast, and due to the post war shortage of brick used precast reinforced clinker columns (you’ll see the relevance later I promise)….
They paid £10,000 for their home, and later, the Council bought back all of the Boot Houses that were privately owned when they realised that they were structurally unsound. Linda’s house was sold back for 30,000!
“We made a tidy profit – Thank you Maggie!
In addition, the council promised to fix the problems and we could return as Tenants.
But it all went wrong. The council then found it would be cheaper to demolish the properties than to fix them and that’s when the residents got busy! The seeds of a now flourishing Residents’ Association came about and the new Linda, the dynamic stalwart community champion, began her 30 year journey of activism and self-discovery.
“That meeting at Perry Common Library was the first time I had ever put my hand up to speak. There was so much I didn’t understand, and I was prepared to say nothing, until one solicitor who was due to speak, distributed packs of information to the officers but then said “I haven’t any for the residents as they would never understand.”
“That made my blood boil – how dare he”.
“I started asking questions after that. He fuelled my anger and my curiosity”.
And so it was, in Perry Common Library that the Resident’s Association was formed, initially to work alongside the council to rebuild their homes. The Resident’s Association later became the Witton Lodge Community Association which was formed to oversee the regeneration and redevelopment of 900+ homes.
“At that time, we didn’t really have a clue what we were doing.”
The residents were steered towards a similar project at Stockfield in Acocks Green, which was the only other model of community ownership and management in Birmingham back then. And that’s when things started to get really interesting!
Ladies in Lavender
The Stockfield project, now Stockfield Community Association, was led by a group of mostly elderly ladies who were very proud of what they’d achieved.
“They told us what they learned and what they would do better. They inspired and advised us and we were on our way…”
At this time there were 908 properties to demolish…
“there was just too much to do in one go! We had no money so the demolition proceeded in phases:
Phase One – which consisted of 103 properties. Each resident was offered a new home once they had been built. Only 3 of the 103 families believed that this and 100 moved elsewhere in the city. Once the homes had been demolished, the land was then transferred to Witton Lodge Community Association on a 125yr lease, with the council still holding the Freehold.
“I look at this as the first Community Asset Transfer in Birmingham. Perry Common had been built as a Council Estate, we wanted to bring in different tenures, so we sold 1/3rd of the land to private developers, 1/3rd to two Housing Associations, and with that money we were going to build our homes on the final third. But we knew that we needed more money to build the standard of homes we wanted to. We still had to borrow, so we got serious, and commissioned solicitors and financial advisors who helped us write our Business Plan. We were successful in obtaining a loan to top-up the shortfall. In 1995 we built 29 homes in our first phase”.
“It had become real. My confidence was improving, but the unconfident Linda was still there, lurking…”
OK I think we’ve got this…
The next phase of the development was due to take place and 31 properties were planned for ourselves, but by now the Association was stronger and more knowledgeable and we started to confidently question comments made by the planning department:
“We sometimes won the battle”.
We wanted to change the road layouts and install cul-de-sacs so that the children could play safely. We wanted to know everything, we were like sponges; we went to planning meetings and we even chose the colours of the bricks!”
It’s been an amazing journey and it’s taken 27 years to complete a 10year project, but it’s been worth every hour that it’s taken!
“We don’t do normal” Linda proudly admits, and we are currently looking for ways to reduce fuel consumption in our homes and help residents with the rising cost of living.
Q. What are the barriers you’ve overcome in your journey through life?
My biggest barrier is my comfort zone – I still have self-confidence issues – the shy Linda is still here. I had low expectations and every day of this journey, I (we) had to prove I am (we were) worthy.
My mother wanted me to work in an office and definitely not a shop as I went to Grammar School, but I didn’t want to and starting work at Sainsbury’s which helped to build my confidence and that’s where I met my husband.
Another big barrier then and indeed now, is that there were no (and still are) very few women working in construction industry, women are virtually invisible, I want to change that.
Hands of my Cherry Tree!
Linda told me another story that made me giggle, but also exemplifies how she uses the art of persuasion and communication.
She was coming home from a meeting, it was late and she was hungry. The chip shop was beckoning her! she passed a group of teenagers who were kicking a newly planted sapling. Instead of shouting at them, she asked the lads how they were doing and started a conversation. She casually mentioned that her friend, Mary, who was 84 years old, had just planted that tree and they were all genuinely mortified and tried to repair the damage.
Linda believes in everyone and knows there is always a way to reach out to people and get them on side.
Having only known her a few hours, I would definitely say it’s one of her superpowers.
Q. What would you write if you had to write a letter to yourself?
You’d be amazed what you can do.
Also don’t be afraid or ashamed of your vulnerability. Vulnerability is to be valued – it keeps us human; it teaches us empathy.
Also speak your mind, but be respectful – I have learned it’s ok to say what I think – whoever it’s to!
Q. Who is your shero and why?
Oh, that’s easy – it’s Mary Harvey. She 100 years old, she is a Director of Witton Lodge Community Association and also a volunteer. She is never miserable, and she loves a man in uniform. She’s my surrogate mum.
She’s an amazing woman who still collects litter from the streets and recently did a sponsored walk for John Taylor hospice. She comes in to fold leaflets and she still walks around the block everyday checking-in on the “old people”!
Mary is my shero.
Q. What advice would you give a woman or community group starting out now?
“Don’t give up and never give in!”
“I find a gem in every day – my joy is working with people and making new friends”.
“You don’t need to know everything, just be willing to learn, listen and most importantly, to ask.
It took me 15 years to be able to ask questions, to feel informed enough to question.
I always wanted to make a difference and I am very proud of what we have achieved!
There is a thin line between arrogance and pride, I hope I’ve stayed on the right side of that line.”
Linda Hines is an amazing woman, a shero in her own right.
She is most definitely an inspiration to women and men alike. Her team adore her, and I’d love to have her school a new generation of budding activists.
Her baby, Witton Lodge Community Association, is definitely a model of community led housing worth studying – in fact my university, the University of Birmingham Centre for Urban Regeneration, take students there every year.
She’s one hell of a gal and watch this space, she’s got her heart set on an Enterprise Centre in the heart of Erdington and I for one, have my money on that project coming to fruition very very soon.