The Dress She Wore

There was no sign but we all knew that Mam and Dad’s bedroom was a forbidden area. Of course that made the temptation to enter even stronger when they were not at home. They both worked, so there were lots of opportunities to trespass when I was young. Once across the threshold it was difficult to see what secrets it held. It was only as I grew older that I understood. This was their private domain, an escape and sanctuary from an overcrowded home. A place where they could rekindle their love and lasting partnership.

Mam’s pride and joy was a dressing table, which always stood under the window. It had three mirrors which if angled correctly would reflect my image to infinity. I rarely opened the drawers for fear of being discovered. Nothing was disturbed on that sacred table. When I dared, I found mainly clothes. Some were old, some new, and some never worn. In the bottom drawer was her treasure, wrapped in old crepe paper. Inside was the salmon pink dress that she wore on the day she and Dad were married. It had faded over years. Their marriage never did. She had kept it, as she kept many things, as a memory of that special day.

The old family wedding photos show how she looked in it on that July  day in 1942. A beautiful 18 year old bride standing arm in arm with the man she loved. He is wearing army uniform. On special leave from his wartime posting in the south of England. The rest of their families stand on either side, supporting them. She looks so happy and so young. Usually, we only remember our parents as they age. We forget that they were young once. We forget that they were full of passion and excitement as they took their first nervous steps on a lifetime together. For four years they were parted by the war. When he returned, they were never parted again, until he died in her arms, as she bathed him for the last time.

I remember taking her to see him as he lay in his coffin. I entered the chapel of rest with her and stood beside him. The coffin was open. I could see that she wanted to be alone. I kissed him and left. I could hear through the door the sound of her gentle sobbing. Her only words were, “I will see you soon, Tom.”

It was not as soon as she had expected. She lived another six years without him. I visited her regularly. I would spend the night with her often in silence. She would always ask me to help her change the sheets on their bed. Her room was no longer forbidden. I discovered that she slept with a pair of his pyjamas but it was never mentioned. When we had finished making the bed  she placed them carefully under her pillow.

It was not a surprise when she died in July, 2003. She had survived Dad’s death. She could not survive the death of my two sisters in January and May in the same year. She gave up after that. I was with her during her final hours. She lay in a hospital bed, a frail echo of the beautiful young woman looking out from the wedding photo. There were no words as she went but I felt that she was no longer alone.

I visited their bungalow once more before her funeral with my brother to begin the painful process of removing their belongings. The contents that made it our home, even though we had both left to be married many years before. We joked as we entered their bedroom. It continued to hold its spell, the forbidden place. Dad’s pyjamas were still under her pillow. The dressing table stood under the window. I looked into infinity for the final time. I opened the drawers. I was surprised to find the wedding dress had gone. I thought she must have removed it after Dad had died. I opened the wardrobe to begin to pack her other clothes. At the end of the rail hung a dry cleaning cover. I opened it. Inside was the newly pressed salmon pink wedding dress. She had sent it to be cleaned before she became ill.

I will never know why? She had not mentioned it. I just knew that she had been preparing it for her death. I carefully took it from the rail and placed it in the back of my car. It was 61 years old and had only been worn once.

We decided that she would wear it again for her funeral. I am not a religious man. I struggle to believe that there is life after death. Mam and Dad did believe. As she said, she was convinced that they would meet again. I believe she had prepared the dress for that moment. The dress she wore on the happiest day of her life when she married the man she loved. The dress she wore when they were reunited in death. The dress that had lain hidden at the bottom of a dark set of drawers for 60 years, in a forbidden bedroom, waiting for its time to come again.

 

The Return Of Social Housing

In my final years as a housing association chief executive I became increasingly concerned at the attacks on social housing by the Conservative led Coalition. I was the first chief executive to speak out against Grant Shapps’s demonization of social housing and its tenants. So it should not have come as a surprise to the sector that I began to devote most of my early retirement years to campaigning for social housing.

At the beginning I felt like a lone voice, until I discovered like-minded people on social media and became a founder member of SHOUT, the campaign for social housing. At the time we were heavily criticised by many leading housing figures. I have been challenged about my views on many occasions when I suggested that we were witnessing the slow death of social housing and that housing associations were moving away from their social purpose and values. I have been called a “grant junkie” for arguing that the only way to solve the housing crisis is by public investment in social rent homes. I have been called a dinosaur for my views and much worse. I have been attacked for being a dissenting voice as many in the housing sector tried to ingratiate themselves with the government. Even if this meant turning their backs on social housing and its tenants.

It is worth remembering that many in the sector stopped using the term social housing, as if they were embarrassed by it. I compared this to the famous jeweller Ratner. Our trade body stopped using it, saying it was unhelpful. Any mention of social housing was removed from our national conference. Even the title was changed to remove the phrase. It was a difficult time for those of us who believed in social housing and its tenants.

Many in the sector were gripped by a Panglossian optimism driven by apparent business success, as thousands more became homeless and poverty increased. It was argued that building any tenure in a time of housing shortage fulfilled social purpose. Housing leaders claimed that the move to be more commercial was motivated by “profit for purpose”. Yet last year we built the lowest number of social rented homes, or their equivalent, in my 40 year career.

Despite the opposition SHOUT and others continued to campaign for investment in social housing. We realised that the move to commercialise housing associations and calls for their deregulation would not solve the housing crisis. More importantly we realised that these moves would further distance housing associations from those they were set up to help. Recent evidence supports this, as more on low incomes are excluded from housing association homes because of unaffordable rents and benefit cuts. SHOUT produced research that showed that investment in social rent homes would save the government £billions by reducing benefit payments and providing a home and a springboard for the poorest in our society. Sadly this was ignored by the government and some sector leaders.

Gradually, this changed, as some began to realise that the government had gone too far with its austerity programme. They saw that the demise of social housing was posing a real threat to society by creating more poverty and inequality. They began to call for government investment in social rent homes and the reversal of the draconian benefit cuts and caps. Strangely the national trade body did not join this call and still failed to mention social housing in most of its literature.

I’m glad to say that in recent weeks this change has accelerated. All of the recent General Election Manifestos mentioned social housing and the need to invest in it. The CIH especially has argued strongly for investment and has openly promoted the need for more real social housing. A recent report by Homes for the North proves, not surprisingly, that social rented homes make up the majority of future so-called affordable housing need. A fellow SHOUT member, Tony Stacey, has written about the sector bending itself out of shape as the political mood music changes and of the need to re-evaluate our social purpose and values. Tragically it has taken a horrific disaster to remind us all of the importance of social housing and the consequences of neglecting it and demonising its tenants. Even a Conservative Prime Minister has said that she “would stand up for social tenants”

We have come a long way from those dark days when the government openly attacked social housing and its tenants. An attack that was met at best with silence from many housing leaders and at worse tacit agreement. Maybe it is too early to talk about the rebirth of social housing. We need real action and proper investment before we can say that. But for the first time in a long time I feel that I am not swimming against the tide, but with it. I will resist the temptation to say that it is good to see that others have caught up and finally discovered that we need social housing.

I have always believed that it is an essential part of a fair society. For me, it is one of the pillars of the welfare state and it requires state investment to ensure that it continues to meet the growing need. That is why I have continued to campaign for it when many were critical. Like another ageing campaigner, I look forward to a few apologies from the people who criticised those of us who kept the social housing flame burning during those dark days. But I won’t be holding my breath. I am just grateful that social housing is back on the agenda. For the sake of the many who need it more than ever, we all must ensure that it stays there.

The Last Words

I have written about the last time I walked with him in The Last Vote. I have written about the last time I saw him in The Last Wave. It is time to write about the last time I spoke to him.

It was on a Friday night, 20th June 1997. I had just made that long journey up the M6 from my office in Birmingham to my home in Merseyside. The journey that I made every day for 5 years. I was tired after a long week and I was looking forward to a glass of wine and dinner with Vishva. Just after 6pm the phone rang. It was my sister, Pat. She was with Mam and Dad at their home in Leicester. She was obviously distressed. I could hear in the background that my brother, Andrew, was with her* She told me that Dad was unable to breathe and that she thought it was a panic attack. She asked me to speak to him, to try and calm him down. The Doctor had visited and said that there was nothing seriously wrong with him. I realised from my recent visit that this could not be true. He had not recovered from his many recent illnesses and he was clearly not well.

She gave him the phone and a weak voice said Hello to me. It was so faint that I found it difficult to hear. His was panting. I asked what was wrong. He found it difficult to reply as he tried to catch his breath. I asked again if he was all right. Again there was no reply. I asked for a third time as I tried to calm him. The phone went silent for a few seconds and he simply replied, “I’m bolloxed son, I’m bolloxed.” He said no more. They were his final words to me. I put down the phone and sobbed. There was nothing I could do to help. My sister rang back a few minutes later and said that he had calmed down and was breathing normally again. For some reason I still felt uneasy. I could not get those final words out of my head.

The next day, 21st June, Midsummers Day, at exactly 6 o’clock the phone rang. My wife, Vishva answered. She gave the phone to me. It was Flo, their neighbour, the mother, of my oldest friend, Malc. All she said was, “I’m sorry Tommy, your Dad has just died. Can you come as quickly as possible?”   I put down the phone and told Vishva. We got into the car, with Kieran, our son, and began the journey I had always feared. We did not speak. The only words in my head, “I’m bolloxed son, I’m bolloxed.”

The death certificate said that he died of pneumonia and heart failure bought on by the MRSA he had caught during his long stay in hospital. The doctor was wrong. He had not been suffering from  a panic attack. He was drowning.

He died in the bathroom of their council bungalow. Mam was bathing him. He fell to the floor and could not be moved. The door opened inwards and the emergency services could not open it as he was blocking the way*. He died in my Mam’s arms. I could not imagine a better way for him to go than with the one he loved. Life had worn him out. He was bolloxed. But in his final moments he was in the arms of the woman with whom he had shared everything;  Marriage, births, good times, bad times, happiness, tears, and now death.

* I made it a requirement after his death that in all of our schemes, bathroom doors opened both ways to prevent similar incidents.

* If you read this please read my brothers comment. He did so much to help Dad and the rest of my family. The loss of all of them over a short period of time contributed to his failing mental health. It is important to understand how Dad’s death and the deaths of our Mam and Sisters effected him too. I am so proud of him.

A Catalyst For Social Housing

 

I have been predicting for some years that eventually the government’s policy on austerity would cause so much damage that people would be forced to fight back. Little did I know that it would take a tragedy in a tower block in one of the richest boroughs in the UK to act as a catalyst for this.

 The tragic fire is a symbol of all that is wrong in Britain today. Growing inequality and poverty have been thrown into sharp relief as some of the poorest in our society have died and suffered because of possible negligence and lack of investment following years of government’s cuts. I’m sure that the Public Enquiry will discuss many reasons for the disaster but there is no doubt that the long term neglect and demonisation of social housing and its tenants is one of them.

 Survivors, relatives and supporters of those involved in the disaster are justifiably angry at the lack of response from local and central government. They are angry that their warnings were ignored by those who managed and owned the tower block. They are angry that promises made since the disaster will not be honored. Mainly because the government’s housing policy, or lack of it, means there is a huge shortage of genuinely affordable social housing in the borough, in London and elsewhere. They are angry because they feel they are being ignored because they are poor and live in social housing. They ask quite rightly, would their rich neighbors be treated in the same way?

 If the authorities continue to ignore their grievances and continue with the inadequate response I am certain that there will be an escalation of the protests. If the local authority and the government continue with the failed policies of the past, those who have suffered for so long will no longer remain silent and now they will have the support of many others. There is no going back. The government must change its approach to social housing. It must deal quickly with the immediate aftermath of the fire and then put into place a long term strategy of investment in real social housing. They must finance the building of desperately needed social rented homes that will ease the housing crisis and reduce the poverty gap. They must fund the improvement of existing homes to ensure that such a tragedy cannot happen in future. The local authority and the government have lost the trust of those who live locally and those who live in similar communities elsewhere. Only by listening and acting swiftly to the justified complaints will they begin to rebuild that trust. It will not happen overnight. It will take time and real investment of money and resources.

 As a longtime supporter of social housing I am concerned that there is a similar lack of trust in housing associations. Many are no longer seen as the supporters of the poor but as bodies who through their policies contribute to social cleansing and the divisions that are so apparent in Kensington and other parts of London and in our major cities. Not only is it time for the government to change its approach, housing associations must change also and return to their original social purpose. Any talk of further gderegulation of housing associations must stop. Surely no government would agree to this anyway in the current circumstances. Many large housing associations are seen to have lost touch with their tenants and local communities. It is time to rebuild these links through action not words.

 There is no way to compensate for the deaths of so many and for the suffering of their relatives, friends and survivors. But if the tragedy could act as a catalyst for real change in our approach to social housing and its tenants, that would be the best memorial we could build for those who have suffered and died.

The ultimate sacrifice 

My blog for UK Housing Fast.

#UKHousingFast

By Tom Murtha

I have spent the last week visiting the sites of the First World War battlefields in Northern France. Or to be more accurate I have been visiting the cemeteries and graveyards that mark the site of the battles.

For they are all that is left to remind us of the carnage that took place 100 years ago. I visited the grave of a great uncle who is buried in a small graveyard in Roisel. I also visited Thiepval which is a memorial to 10000s who have no known resting place.

They were lost or disappeared on the killing fields, never to be seen again. I did not visit because I glorify war. I agree with Wilfred Owen when he wrote, “The old lie: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori” Meaning there is no glory in dying for your country, as many politicians claimed to justify the…

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The Poppy Road. 

Today I walked down a poppy road to visit a long lost uncle. The road from Villers-Faucon to Roisel is straight like many roads in France.  At this time of year it is edged by a border of flaming red poppies. A reminder of those soldiers who walked the same road 100 years ago.

My great uncle was one of those men and today I am visiting his grave in the war cemetery in Roisel. The landscape is flat and treeless. Where soldiers once fought one of the bloodiest battles in history, a solitary French farmer drives a tractor backwards and forwards, tilling the fields.

The air is still and humid. A muggy day as we would say in Leicester, my home town and his. I walk in silence thinking of him and his family, whose grave I visited often in my childhood with my Mam, his niece. She never knew where he was buried. The family grave just said, somewhere in France. I discovered it on the web and now I’m walking down this road to pay my respects, the first relative to do so.

I am not alone, Vishva is walking with me. Once more supporting me as she has always done. We do not speak. She knows I am lost in my thoughts about family and friends no longer with us.

It is early and there is a still silence that hangs over the fields. In the distance a cuckoo calls. My Mam’s favourite sound was a cuckoo clock. Her grandchildren called her cuckoo grandma. I know she is walking with me, as she always did. Standing on the touch line to support and protect. This walk is for her. It is only fitting she should share it.

We arrive at the gate. There are so many war cemeteries in France. They all look similar. There are too many. We should never forget that too many,  mainly young,  men died, in that pointless war. My great uncle was just one of them.

But this cemetery is special as it marks his last resting place. I think of how the news of his death in a foreign field would have effected my great grandparents and the rest of his family. He was just one of the millions who died but to them he was special. Just as everyone else in the graveyard was special to someone. Even when millions are slaughtered, we should never forget that each life is precious and each death tragic.

In the wall there is a metal safe. I open it and take out the roll of honour. I find his name, William Henry Crowson, killed in action 18th April, 1917. That is all together with his regiment, The Leicestershire Regiment, and his grave reference. I wish there were more. I wanted to know what they were doing in this small village and how he died. That information is now lost. All we have left is his name and memory.

I walk along the ranks of headstones until I reach his. Standing amongst a group of comrades from The Leicestershire Regiment. I am pleased to see he is not alone. He is with his pals. In death as in life. They marched together. They died together.

I have brought a cross and a poppy from home. I place it on his grave and stand in silence. I read the inscription, paid for by his brother, another great uncle. “Gone but not forgotten.” I am living proof that he was not forgotten. The childhood walks to the cemetery in Leicester showed that my Mam never forgot him, though he died before she was born. I will pass this story on to my family in the hope of keeping his name alive. A young man who died and is buried in a grave so far from his home.

I shed a tear as I stand in front of his headstone. There are no sounds to break the silence and peace of this special place. I touch the grave for the last time as I turn to walk away.  Somewhere in the distant a cuckoo’s call cuts the silent air. I know she is saying her own goodbye and thanking me for taking a Sunday morning walk along a poppy road to a graveyard somewhere in France.

Be Careful What You Wish For. 

I often think there is nothing new in housing. If you wait long enough old ideas come around again. People have talked about deregulation in the sector for as long as I can remember. They have also proposed having the freedom to set our own rents. I remember discussions in the early 1990s about doing this within the Fair Rent Regime.
I have always supported regulation. I believe there are many examples where regulation has benefitted social housing, not just in financial and governance issues but also in areas that have directly benefitted tenants and residents. Involving tenants in our work increased when it became a regulatory priority. Diversity, both in employment and service delivery, improved when the regulator intervened. It is no coincidence that we have gone backwards on ethnic diversity since it fell off the regulator’s radar, and subsequently housing’s radar.
This is why I have concerns about the current call for deregulation and within that a proposal to allow housing associations to set their own rent. We are already witnessing a huge reduction in social rent homes. The Chartered Institute of Housing estimates around 250,000 will be lost by 2020. If the average house size is three to four people, that is nearly one million people we will not be able to provide homes for. This is something we should all be concerned about. But sadly the sector is almost silent on the subject.
One of the reasons for this loss is converting social rents to so-called affordable rents. I fear that the ability to set our own rents will only accelerate this loss and that housing associations will move further away from providing real social housing. All of the research I have seen only talks about the headroom to increase rents and the funds it will free up to boost development. I have seen no research on reducing rents or more importantly the effect of higher rents on current and future tenants. There is growing evidence that increasing rents and reducing benefits is leading to the exclusion of people on low and no incomes from social housing. This proposal could lead to more people being excluded.
The counter argument is that the ability to set rents will allow housing associations to build more and set rents to allow for local circumstances. I am not aware of any evidence that supports this. I am concerned that the likely outcome will be, at best, a two tier system, and greater residualisation. One where there will be different levels of service depending on what rent you pay. I also fear that when boards have to make tough decisions about rent levels, financial imperatives will take priority over social purpose and values.
Boards and staff have little experience in rent setting. I can see that this proposal will increase the use of advisors and consultants and lead to extra costs. I can also see that it will reduce pressures to become more efficient and reduce costs when cost increases can be met by increased rents. Over the years cost inflation and price inflation usually runs ahead of income increases. In the long run our homes will become more unaffordable to the most vulnerable in our society. The people we were set up to help. I am not aware that anyone has looked at the effects on future benefit payments. But if they increase, the government will come under pressure to make further cuts or introduce caps.
If anyone doubts that these things are possible, look at the utilities. They were deregulated and privatised and since then we have only seen their prices increase to unaffordable levels. This is causing so much concern that both major parties are proposing to cap and control prices. Is this a possible future for housing associations if this proposal is implemented? Be careful what you wish for. We might think that today’s leaders will stay true to their social purpose, but what of tomorrow’s?
This blog recently appeared in Inside Housing under a different title.