“Brian was especially proud of the success of the campaign against the sell-off of Swindon’s council housing”

Our friend Brian Shakespeare has died aged 81. Brian was a Swindonian born and raised in Rodborne in a working class family of seven children. He did not have much of a formal education but he was an autodidact (self-taught) widely read and intelligent.

He did a range of industrial jobs including working in BMW, the car factory. He had to take medical retirement as a result of rheumatoid arthritis and did security work until he retired.

Until illness prevented Brian from being active he was a determined campaigner for council tenants and council housing. He was Chair of Swindon Tenants Campaign Group which was set up to campaign against the sale of Swindon’s Council housing to a housing association in 2011.

Brian was a council tenant in a sheltered housing scheme (David Stoddart Gardens) where he was the tenant rep. Like a shop steward in the workplace he did far more than was strictly his role. He was the the first port of call for other tenants looking for help and advice, which he gave freely.

He was a phenomenally hard worker, with more energy than many people much younger than himself. Whether it was leafleting door to door, collecting signatures to a petition, talking to tenants, he did more work than anybody. Brian gave his time and commitment without a hint of self-interest or self-aggrandisement.

Brian was especially proud of the success of the campaign against the sell-off of Swindon’s council housing. The council was proposing to transfer its council housing stock to a housing association, which would have involved tenants losing our ‘secure tenancy’. The campaign secured a ‘No’ vote, with 72% of tenants voting against transfer. It was won against the odds since the council had financial and human resources way beyond what a campaign of unpaid volunteers could muster.

Together with other tenants Brian also succeeded in convincing the council to abandon “fixed term tenancies” which threatened eviction even if they always paid the rent and were perfectly well behaved. The council was evetually persuaded to abandon these and reintroduce the open ended ‘secure tenancies’ for all tenants.

Of course, Brian’s interests were far wider than housing. He was involved in a whole range of campaigns. He was a great supporter of the NHS despite some problems he experienced owing to the pressures it was under as a result of austerity and staff shortages.

Brian was universally respected and liked. He could be very fiery and did not suffer fools gladly. He used to get frustrated with people who could not comprehend the world the way he did in the face of evidence; especially his own generation. But he was encouraged by the rise of a younger generation in opposition to racism and in response to the environmental crisis.

He was sometimes dismissive of men in general – “they’re only interested in football” – and praised the resolve of younger women, especially single parents, who have to bring up their children sometimes under acute financial pressure and in the face of the oppressive and punitive benefit system. Probably his own experience as a single parent, working a full-time job, at a time when it was very rare for men to be in that position, influenced his view.

From the experience of his campaigning he especially praised the people of Penhill, one of Swindon’s most maligned working class communities.

If there is a legacy that Brian has left behind you can probably say that it is Swindon’s council housing stock itself. Whilst the battle to improve the stock and to build new council housing on a large enough scale to begin to resolve the housing crisis, continues, the effort of Brian together with other tenants and trades unionists and Labour Party members, ensured that we maintained our council housing.

Brian was one of those ‘unsung heroes’ who did the hard work selflessly. He was always available to help anybody out and to raise his voice against any injustice which he saw. He was absolutely reliable. As one councillor said “Swindon will be a poorer place without him”. He will be missed but remembered.

Martin Wicks