Updated 11 July 2018
What is a Sink Street?
In the 1970s, before Mrs Thatcher was elected, nearly one home in three was built and owned by a local council.
Council housing was better quality than private rented housing, and much better value than private rented housing.
There were entire estates where people never wanted to leave, because life was pleasant and there was a real community. Sons and daughters who had grown up on the estate wished to live there when they married and had children. The waiting lists for some estates were more than 10 years.
Of course, not every council tenant paid their rent on time. Some did not keep the garden tidy. Some annoyed their neighbours or disturbed the neighbourhood.
Every local authority had a Sink Street or even a sink estate as a deterrent.
The sink estate or Sink Street was notorious. No-one who applied for a job giving an address in Sink Street ever got an interview, because either you were from a criminal family or you had criminal friends and neighbours.
The credit agencies red lined the area so you could not obtain credit even if you did have a job.
On a sink estate life was so rough that even the wandering Alsatian dogs went around in groups of four.
Tenants who misbehaved were threatened with Sink Street.
If they continued to misbehave they ended up in Sink Street. All the rotten apples were in one barrel, and lots of other council estates remained good places to live.
The Sink Street Case
I was at the Magistrates Court for a trial on whether my client was guilty of a small fraud. There were two police witnesses whose statements we had accepted as accurate and who therefore would not attend, and three women from my client’s neighbourhood.
The only other case that day was from Sink Street, with eight witnesses! The court Clerk explained to me quietly that he had expected the case to collapse with a compromise guilty plea. It had to go ahead. Given the nature of some of the witnesses he wished to get them out of the building as soon as he could.
It had been a July Friday afternoon on Sink Street. Benefits were paid on Thursday, so by Friday afternoon some good citizens of Sink Street were a bit drunk.
Many in Sink Street were sitting out in their small front gardens enjoying the sunshine and enjoying the conversations.
A discussion about football had turned into a significant argument between two neighbours, and as such conversations sometimes do, the conversation had ranged widely over the perceived faults and failings of the two families. Given that a normal conversation on Sink Street involved the odd rude word, a heated discussion generated more even rude words.
There were conditional and unconditional threats. A conditional threat “If I catch your John in my garden again I will chastise him”, and an unconditional threat “Next time I see your Fred I will knock his teeth out”.
Someone feared that there would be violence and telephoned the police.
A police car arrived within minutes. The police officers were known to the residents of Sink Street, and the police knew most of the residents.
The police had arrived too early. There had been no actual violence.
Some people disappeared into their homes and listened through the windows.
Some citizens indicated that they did not require the services of the police at this time. One of them suggested the police should go away, using an indelicate phrase.
He was cautioned about using such language in a public place.
He said he was in his own front garden, which in his view was not a public place. So he could say what he wished, and he repeated his indelicate phrase.
He was arrested.
He was charged with “blemish of the peace”, which is about the most minor charge there is. Although his language was offensive, it was not totally unheard of in Sink Street. and the police officers were only professionally offended. If the truth be known, the phrase was not unknown in the police canteen.
Apart from the two police officers and the Defendant, there were five good citizens of Sink Street. None of the civilians were in court for the first time, although some may have been witnesses for the first time.
As the charge was so trivial Legal Aid was not available.
The Defendant was conducting his defence himself. He was clearly influenced by some of the American TV dramas, and at one point he wished to plead the Fifth Amendment.
It had to be explained to the Defendant that the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America has no bearing in an English court.
However, if he did not wish to answer a question because the answer might tend to incriminate him, he was entitled not to answer.
At the end of the trial the Magistrates found there had been a blemish of the peace.
The Defendant was required to sign a document saying that he would not blemish the peace for the next six months.
If he did not agree to sign it he would be held in custody for six months. It was his choice.
He agreed to sign.
My Client’s Trial
My client’s trial could now begin. The first prosecution witness gave evidence. I cross examined with my client’s version of the conversation. The witness agreed with some of my client’s points but not with others. I felt at that point that the trial could still go either way.
The second witness was called. She gave her name.
“And do you still live at 5 Pleasant Street?”
“No, I moved to 10 Sink Street last week”.
A quiver ran through the court.
Just because the Court had spent much of the day listening to undesirable residents of Sink Street did not mean that evidence from this witness should be valued less because she lived on Sink Street.
She turned out to be a star witness. The truth shone out of her.
She remembered the conversation verbatim, and there was no doubting that what she said was true.
When it came to cross examination I barely had to prompt her before she was telling the court exactly what that part of the conversation had been. Fortunately her conversation tallied with my client’s instructions.
She spontaneously mentioned two things that were important to my client’s case.
When she had finished, the Prosecution lawyer rose. He told the court that he believed the witness. With the information she had given it would be inappropriate for the Prosecution to continue, and he invited the Court to dismiss the charge. They did.
What Happened Next?
When Mrs Thatcher was elected, she passed legislation that allowed Council tenants to buy their homes at a discount. Someone who had been a Council tenant for 30 years could have 30% off. The only catch was that if you sold your house within 5 years of purchase some of the discount was clawed back.
On the good estates virtually every house was purchased by the tenants.
Councils now were left with the least attractive properties and the least ambitious or least competent tenants.
Most of the profit they made from selling the houses was soaked up by the government so the councils could not replace the lost housing.
The government encouraged Housing Associations, which were Not For Profit organisations set up by estate agents solicitors and builders to provide cheap social housing for people who now could not get a Council property. Some were also set up by charities or as charities.
Sink Street is still there.