The Armstrong family decided to sell the estate in 1972 through a sealed bid auction, with the Gardens going to the highest bidder. Like swimmers waiting for the shark to bite, the residents of Lissenden Gardens knew that their world would provide a tempting morsel to property speculators hoping to make a make a killing.
This attack was not taken lying down. In the spring of 1972, Lissenden Garden residents formed a tenants’ association and planned an expert campaign to save the estate. At that time, companies were buying up blocks of rented flats, persuading or bullying tenants to leave, so they could sell the flats to owner occupiers at a profit. Lissenden Gardens residents were terrified they would lose their homes, as many would be unable to afford the high prices that a property company would want to charge.
The tenants’ association worked on a number of fronts. They tried to scare off potential landlords by persuading every tenant to put up a no-entry sign in their flat. Camden Council was lobbied to buy the estate, with the possibility that the residents could later set up a housing association. And attempts were made to find a property company who would buy the estate on the residents’ terms. The Lissenden Gardens Tenants Association (LGTA) published a newsletter to keep tenants informed of the latest developments in the struggle, and also organised fundraising activities, including a babysitting organisation, and social events.
The LGTA consulted tenants on possible solutions to the problem. Subsequently, the LGTA made housing history by proposing the “Lissenden Formula”, an ingenious proposal for the council to buy the estate, but to allow existing tenants to buy the leases to their flats if they so wished. To prevent the estate eventually becoming wholly owned, tenants who bought their flats would have to sell them back to the council if they wanted to leave. Under the formula, tenants would have jointly managed the estate with the council. Not surprisingly, the Labour party in Camden refused to accept the idea that tenants could buy their council flats – this was eight years before Margaret Thatcher introduced the right to buy – but both Labour and Conservatives were sympathetic to the idea of some form of resident involvement in management.
Despite the LGTA committee’s efforts, the council failed to persuade the Armstrong family to sell the estate to them on special terms and were restricted by law in the price they could offer. So the estate was sold to Gulindell, the highest bidder and a private property company whose directors had a reputation for buying up properties and forcing out the tenants. John Crouch, chair of the LGTA responded to this blow with advice to a LGTA meeting to “Be prepared to fight for your rights!” The Council did not let the matter drop either, quickly preparing plans to serve a compulsory purchase order (CPO) on the Gardens.
Relations between the tenants and the company quickly soured when Gulindell tried to increase rents soon after the acquisition. This plan backfired because the tenants association had discovered a loophole that allowed them to resist the rent increases.
The LGTA was still campaigning hard against their new landlords. Gulindell did up a show flat and was preparing to sell other flats as they became vacant. Average prices were £27,000, far out of reach of most of the residents. The LGTA responded to this threat by erecting an imitation estate agents’ board outside the show flat, warning ‘Caveat emptor’ – buyer beware – the estate was the subject of a compulsory purchase order. Nobody was prepared to take the risk under such circumstances, and none of the flats were sold.
To add to the pressure on Gulindell, the council posted “dangerous structure” notices on the some of the blocks in July 1973, requiring the owners to carry out urgent repairs.
Camden Council’s compulsory purchase order was turned down by central government in July 1973 but the council eventually persuaded Gulindell to sell. On the 6 October 1973 council leader Frank Dobson, invited the LGTA to a meeting at the town hall where he was announced that the Council had bought the estate for £2.8 million