Table Football 

image_578329523653663

You  asked how it began.

The First Time.

The first time I met him was in my room at Raymont Hall. I was standing on my balcony smoking. It was a sunny afternoon in early October 1972. I had returned recently from a holiday in Spain with a broken relationship, a sun tan and 200 Spanish cigarettes. My Mam and Dad had just driven away, bursting with pride that their eldest son was “at university”. My door was open and the strong pungent smell of continental tobacco drifted onto the corridor. He walked by, smelt the air and walked in.

He said his name was Alan and asked for a  cigarette. He said he was from Southampton and had arrived earlier. I remember his long hair and the smell of Old Spice. We talked about nothing, anxious to fill the void. Trying hard not to show that this was all new and that we were strangers in a strange land. That Raymont Sunday feeling was already filling the room. Do you remember them? Those Sunday afternoons that seemed to last forever, where nothing happened.

We stood on the balcony, smoking and talking, watching the other newcomers arrive. I can still hear his soft Southampton bur. I can still smell the burning tobacco. I can still feel the sun on my back. I can still hear the sound of his guitar. He said he had found a games room and suggested that we play table football. I followed him thinking that he did not look the type who played games. The games room was empty. The football table stood at its centre. There was a slot for payment.

I no longer remember how much it cost or who paid but as the afternoon wore on we played many games. I was wrong about his interest in games. He was very good. The more we played the more competitive we became. He pressed hard and I refused to be beaten. He once told me ” above all things be gentle but never confuse gentleness with weakness “. His gentle strength was revealed in his playing. Subtly stroking the rods, like the fretboard on his guitar, until he was in a position to slam in a goal. When we finally finished the score was even. I looked at him and smiled and he smiled back.That is where it all began. It was a Raymont Sunday afternoon, nothing had happened, but our lives had changed.

You asked how it ended.

The Last Time.

The last time I met him was in March 2007. Some of you were there. We had driven from London to an old barn near Glastonbury. We were going to meet to say goodbye. We knew the cancer had returned and that he would soon be gone. Throughout the long journey we had laughed and joked to hide the pain and the anger. When we finally arrived he greeted us all with a hug. He was already slightly drunk and unsteady on his feet. I sat quietly at the table watching and wondering if it was the alcohol or if it was tumor that was beginning to change him. We all got very drunk. He eventually fell over and we carried him to bed. 

The next morning he was Al again, sharing time with everyone. He told us that the barn was owned by the man who wrote ” Yes Minister “. He had been happy for us to use it as he was also suffering from cancer. We discovered that the barn was huge and it had a games room with a table football. The temptation was too much. He suggested that we play. We went to find the room just as we had done all those years ago. There it stood in the centre of the room, the football table. We started to play. It was uncomfortable to watch. The tumor had taken its toll. His hands were unsteady and he found it difficult to concentrate. He knew that I was not trying and he got angry. I rarely saw him angry before his illness. We played for some time until he became tired. I suggested that he take a rest before lunch. He seemed pleased to find an excuse to stop.

That afternoon after a rest and a massage he said he felt better and suggested that we play again. I was surprised as we had both found the morning difficult. The game started and we were suddenly back in Raymont. Two young men enjoying the first flush of friendship. He was transformed. The shakes had gone. He was totally focussed on the game. I did not hold back and took an early lead. The score fluctuated as we played on. Each time I took a lead he came back with a goal. We had always played to 10 and I began to wonder if I could get there first. I slammed in a goal to make it 9-7 and began to feel a little easier. Alan scored again to make it 9-8. The tempo increased as we each pushed for the next score. Alan stroked the ball to his front rods and dummied and scored. The scores were even at 9 all. We were both tired. I was preparing to play on when Alan stood back from the table and looked into my eyes and with a soft smile said, ” Let’s leave it there, until the next time ” I looked at him and felt the hairs rising on my neck. Tears were rolling down my cheeks as I stepped forward and hugged him. I whispered in his ear, ” until the next time”.

He died on 1st May 2007. I was in a hotel room when I heard the news. As I put down the phone I looked at the bedside table. On it was a card from the hotel. On the card was a picture of a football table.

Epilogue.

Several years later, I was tidying some books which I had not touched since he died. I found one that he had given to me in 2001. I had never read it. I opened it and found a note from him. I did not know it was there.
It said,

Dear Tom,
Nearly 30 years eh ?! ( 28 3/4 to be exact )
Your friendship and quiet kindness have been so important to me.
It is no exaggeration to say that you, and Vish, have been part of
some of the happiest moments of my life.
What can I say?
Thank you,
Alan.

I miss him still.

 

A Collective Failure.

I was not shocked. I had seen it before and even experienced it when I was young. I was horrified and ashamed to see that people were still living in such conditions in 21st Century Britain and that social housing, not the private sector, was to blame.

I spent much of my early life living in the safety and the warmth of a council home. But because of Dad’s endless search for a better job, I also lived in private accommodation. Here I experienced some horrendous living conditions. Homes so damp that my mattress turned green with mould. Homes so cold that the widows froze on the inside in winter. Homes that had no security of tenure, which meant that we became homeless for nine months in the mid-1960s. The offer of a council house rescued us, and I benefited again from living in a warm, decent, secure home. Something we should all be able to enjoy as a basic human right. 

My experience meant that I associated poor housing conditions with the private sector. This was confirmed when I started working in housing in the mid-1970s. My job entailed visiting people who were living in awful housing conditions in the private sector, often in multi occupied dwellings. These were owned by unscrupulous private landlords of which Rachman was the most famous. His name became synonymous with poor housing.

Many housing associations were established as a response to Rachmanism. Their aim was to acquire these unfit dwellings and modernise them to provide decent, safe, and secure homes for those in the greatest need. The private sector had failed to do this, so the public and quasi-public sector was established to do it instead. For most of my life I have believed that this should be the main aim of all social landlords.

However, as Daniel Hewitt’s excellent journalism has shown, some are now failing to do this. Recent reports and a harrowing documentary, shown last night, have revealed the extent of the failure. Tenants are living in conditions that would put Rachman to shame. This is not in the private sector as I would expect, but in homes owned by housing associations and local authorities. How has this come about? How have some in social housing allowed it to happen? The organisations involved have apologised and come up with excuses, but they do not provide an explanation. Some have said that only a small proportion of properties owned by social landlords are unsafe and unfit. I don’t know if this is true but it is certainly not good enough. One person living in such conditions is one too many. And the number of cases revealed by ITV and those that I see daily on social media indicate that these are not isolated incidents.

The majority but not all cases are in large associations. The very size of these organisations mean that failures often go unseen and the cries for help from tenants are unheard. Many of the leaders of such organisations have no real experience of social housing and the conditions some people are forced to live in. They know more about derivatives than they do of damp. The priorities of such organisation have moved away from existing tenants and properties. Growth and development are the order of the day. The development factories must be fed. The main concern is Martini development, any type, any price, anywhere, at the expense of existing tenants. New homes that exiting tenants cannot afford. So called affordable housing that isn’t.

The tenants are forgotten. Their voices, as at Grenfell, are not heard. They have been forced to voice their problems through the media to get something done. Many of these organisations claim that tenants are at the heart of their work. Some have obviously had a bypass because the tenants cries for help have been ignored. It is not surprising that tenants sought other routes to raise their concerns. ITV did not go looking for these issues. They responded to a justified outcry in a way that the landlords involved refused to do. Why did the organisations wait until the issues became public before they acted?

It is not the front-line staff who are to blame. The fault lies in the leadership of such organisations. Executives and non-executives, who are extremely well paid for what they do, have failed in what should be their primary objective, to provide a decent home. I am not aware that any have fully accepted responsibility for this failure. Certainly, I have heard of no resignations or disciplinary action. Those who fail financially are often held to account. Those who fail to provide a crucial part of the service are obviously not.

Not only have the leaders failed, but regulation has also failed. The head of regulation might be ashamed of these issues, but they have taken no action against the organisations involved. Some have said that they do not have the powers to do so. But if the motivation was there, I believe they would have found a way. The failures identified by the documentary are clearly a failure of governance, by any definition, and the regulator can act in these circumstances. That they have not raises another series of questions as to why? Are some too big to fail?

The sector itself has failed. As in the past when such failures have been exposed in film or documentary the initial response is to draw round the wagons, to deny and often attack those raising the issues. This collective denial, this unwillingness to look into the mirror and accept that all is not perfect in the social housing garden is at the root of a failure to act on many issues. Be it service delivery, the need to share real power with tenants, or institutional racism. Unless we genuinely accept that we are at fault we will continue to fail.

So, what is to be done to prevent these horrific living conditions from continuing? Clearly changes in leadership and culture are required. Strategic priorities must change too. Some organisations have grown too big and serious consideration should be given to breaking them down into smaller units that are genuinely accountable to local communities and tenants. Some have begun to change. Some have dramatically reduced the size of their development programmes to invest more in existing homes and services. They have apologised and admitted that they have got the balance wrong in the past and took their eye off the ball. Time will only tell if this delivers real change. To enforce this, we need regulatory change. An independent regulator that is willing to act against those who are unwilling or unable to change and to concentrate the minds of those who are.

Finally let’s look at where it all began. Many of associations involved were set up to improve the living conditions of those suffering in the private sector. Some seem to have forgotten this and become more like Rachman himself. Seeking growth and profit at the expense of people living in unsafe and unfit homes. Perhaps it’s time for us all to take responsibility for this and remember why we are here. To provide a decent, safe, and warm home at a price that people can genuinely afford. If you are unable to do this, you have no place in social housing.

New and old inspirations

It’s always good to return to The Outward Bound Trust UK Ullswater Centre to be inspired by the new and the old. This time the new inspiration were a group of 16 to 19 year olds about to depart on a three day expedition to climb Scafell Pike as part of a two week course. Young people about the learn new skills and develop memories that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

All of the students were sponsored by the Bursary scheme which enables less privileged people to benefit from the course. I came from a similar background in 1967 and I am forever grateful for the opportunity provided by the local authority which funded my course.

As I watched the young people prepare I was that 14 year old again who had attended the course so many years before. I dreamed for a moment of going with them. But those days are gone. I could barely carry the pack now let alone walk for three days and climb Scafell.

Vishva and I had arrived earlier at the centre to be met by Sam a senior instructor. We talked about reopening after lockdown and how important it was for all involved. He offered to be our guide but we were happy to wonder the grounds unaccompanied. Vishva enjoying the views and me lost in my memories. Even after 60 years it is still a special place.

We walked to the boathouse and jetty to look over Ullswater to High Street. We passed through woods where in the past various activities would have taken place. We looked around the stores where equipment for over 100 participants was kept. Everything looking much lighter and much warmer than in my day. We admired the new buildings and old which blended together to form the centre as it is today.

Of course it has changed. As we all must change. But the work of the Trust is as important now as it was when some of us were young. Why? Because it gives people like those waking off to conquer Scafell an opportunity to change their lives. Just as it gave me and many like me the same opportunity all those years ago. As I said a very special place full of special people.

The Last Journey

The wipers beat time like a metronome in a losing battle with the storm. The Friday night traffic on the M6 was crawling north. I was one of many driving home on my daily commute. Exhausted after a week’s work at my office in Birmingham. Two hours on the road and maybe another hour to go. I began to wonder if I would make it.

When a voice in my head told me to take the next junction. A man’s voice. One that I had not heard for some years. A voice that I could not ignore. I turned and felt a presence in the car beside me. The voice continued. “Concentrate on your driving son, I will take care of the road.” I drove on as the man’s voice filled the car telling me of many journeys from the past.

He told of the time before the war, when he had been a 14-year-old boy riding the rear brakes on a steam wagon. Crossing the Pennines in the middle of winter on the roads between Gateshead and Liverpool. Struggling to hold the wagon back on the steep descents. Sleeping overnight in bug ridden hostels.

He told me of how during the war, he had borrowed a motor bike from his battery on the south coast to drive home to Leicester to see his wife and young daughter. The weather was so cold that when he arrived his hands were frozen to the handlebars. It was the first time he had seen his baby girl. They called her Pat after his dad.  On his return to the barracks, he had been busted to bombardier and sentenced to 14 days in the glasshouse.

He told of a sea crossing in a force nine gale on a destroyer bound for Stromness. During the night watch he had first been visited by Morta. A presence that would accompany him on his journeys for the rest of his life. It had kept him awake in the early morning gloom as he scanned the horizon for danger. Only leaving him as the ship safely entered harbour.

He told of driving lorries north during the winter of 1947 when the diesel froze in the tanks. How on one journey he had seen an elephant on the road through the dense fog. He thought he was seeing things until he arrived at the next town There on the side of the road, he saw a row of caravans. In an adjacent field men were struggling to raise a Big Top.

He told of driving holiday makers on charabanc trips to Skegness on Bank Holidays with his wife Edith by his side. Of spending time together on the beach. A break from the family and the dreary rationing of post war Britain. Driving back to Leicester late at night not knowing that two had become three. Leading the singing to keep awake and pass away the time. The more he sang the better the tip he received when they finally reached the bus station.

He told of overnight drives to Tyneside to see his family with his wife and bairns asleep in the back. This was when he was happiest. The whole night ahead of him and only Morta for company. One of the few times in his life when he felt at ease and in control. Going home to Gateshead where he had been raised before leaving to travel to Leicester to find work. Returning to visit the remains of his family there before they passed on.

He told that as he grew older, he began to worry about long journeys and eventually to dread them. What had once been his greatest pleasure now only brought fear. He recounted the night before he was due to drive his local pensioners’ club on a minibus trip to the country. He had reluctantly agreed to do it because the normal driver was ill. He was worried before he went to sleep. During the night he had a stroke and woke the next morning without a voice.

I remembered that morning. The phone call from Mam and the long drive from Liverpool to Leicester with Vishva and Kieran. He eventually recovered but he was not the same man. A speech therapist helped him to talk again but he never found his voice. I looked out of the windscreen through the tears and the rain. In the headlights I could see a sign for Holmes Chapel. The village where I lived.

“So, this is your home now.” he said. “I wish I could have seen it. I wish I could have met your beautiful wife and my grandson just one more time.” It was not to be. He had died a year before we moved here. His final words were, “you will be safe now son.” And the presence was gone.

As I turned off the main road into my drive, I realised that this was the road he had used when he drove heavy goods lorries north before the M6 had been built. This was the road he had used later to drive to Merseyside to visit us to avoid the traffic on the motorway. This was the road he used to drive his eldest daughter to a Catholic Nursing Home to have a baby when she was still just a child herself. This was the road he used to move his family from Leicester to Derby in a vain search for peace and happiness. This was his road.

I never saw him again even though I have driven that way many times since. He had come to me when I needed him most. As he always did. I still think of him on long drives. I still wonder about Morta his travelling companion. I like to think that they are out there now. Travelling the roads together. Doing what he loved best. Driving at night with his wife and family asleep at the back. Ready to pick the rest of us up when our time comes.

Chairing HACT in a time of change.

When I decided to move on from my full-time role as a chief executive of a housing association, I received several calls from headhunters and others asking me to apply for non-executive positions. I did not want to move directly from a housing association executive role to a non-executive one and I declined almost all of them. One that did appeal to me was the Chair of HACT. I had known of the charity since my time with the National Federation of Housing Associations in 1980s when it was the Housing Association Charitable Trust.  It had been established in 1960 by Sir Parker Morris as a grant giving body to fund new ideas and innovation in housing. It had also played a major role in creating new housing associations and the Shelter Campaign in the 1960s. I had worked with it in 1980s when it was providing pump priming grants to embryonic black led housing associations and housing cooperatives. It had been chaired over the years by several distinguished housing figures, so it was with some humility and trepidation that I applied. After two interviews I was delighted to be appointed. 

As I began my tenure as chair the charitable world was experiencing a period of rapid change. A policy of austerity had been introduced by the coalition government. This dramatically reduced funding for many charities at a time when poverty and inequality were increasing. Just when they were needed the most charities which had become dependent upon government funding were running out of money. HACT had once been funded mainly by the housing sector but by the early 2000s much of its funding came from government and other grant giving bodies. In a time of austerity, it was doubtful if this business model was sustainable.

At an awayday soon after I was appointed it became apparent that the board of trustees was dissatisfied about several issues. This dissatisfaction boiled over during the first session and I decided to abandon the day’s agenda to allow the trustees to air their concerns. They were unhappy that the charity appeared to be losing its way and that future funding was likely to dry up. After the awayday the long serving chief executive informed me that she wished to move on. Some trustees also decided that it was time for them to go. Clearly the issue of future purpose, sustainability and perhaps survival would become my major concerns as chair.  In the meantime, I began a search for a new chief executive and trustees.

The search produced a strong field of candidates for the chief executive role. The panel decided to appoint Matt Leach. The only candidate on the shortlist who I did not know. It would turn out to be one of the best appointments I have ever made. Matt had experience of the social housing sector and of working with think tanks. This combination would prove to be crucial as we set about rebuilding HACT. We looked for similar skills as we appointed new trustees. Some were known to me others were not. As always, I was keen to ensure that the trustees included a diverse range of talents.

Soon after Matt was appointed, I went on holiday. As I was walking along the beautiful coastal footbath in Northumberland, I received a phone call from him. He and our deputy chief executive Andrew vann Doorn had been carrying out a forensic review of the accounts. They discovered a hole which meant that funding would run out in a few months. HACT was on the verge of trading while insolvent. To put it bluntly we needed to find some money and we needed to find it quickly.

I called an emergency meeting of the trustees to discuss how we would deal with this cash crisis. We agreed to produce a long-term strategic plan to transform our business model and in the short term to try and raise sufficient funding to bridge the gap. It was in delivering these plans that the different skills of the new team came to the fore. Matt and some of the trustees were great innovators and began to spark many ideas on what HACT would look like in future. I worked with other trustees on raising funds. HACT had providing funding for many housing associations over the years. It was time to call in some favours. We met chief executives and asked for support. In this way we raised a significant amount of cash to fund our current liabilities and future work.

Matt and his colleagues developed many ideas that were to shape HACT’s new business model. This was to become based on selling ideas and innovations to the housing and later care sectors. These were initially built around a set of tools to identify and measure social value. Something close to my heart. HACT was transforming from a grant giving body to a think/do tank.

Of course, this did not happen overnight. It took a couple of years and there were setbacks on the way. Like any board we realised that it was important to monitor progress to ensure we were on the right track and to hold the executive to account. It was in this area that Andrew proved to be invaluable. He and his colleagues produced detailed financial and operational reports which enabled the executive and trustees to monitor progress and identify potential problems. The transformation would not have taken place without this.

My job as Chair was quite simple. I provided the room and support to allow these ideas to develop and to let them grow. I received excellent support from my vice chair Gavin Cansfield and trustees to do this. Working with Matt was a revelation. He was continually sparking ideas. If I added anything to the process it was to provide a reality check. I think we made a good team. I could not have done this without the help of Gavin, who met with Matt regularly as they were both based in London. By this time he was the longest serving trustee and provided an excellent bridge between the old HACT and the new.

We strongly believed that housing associations would want to be involved in the new initiatives. Measuring social value was a holy grail for the sector and many were willing to invest in HACT to see new tools developed to identify and measure it. However not all our ideas were initially popular. Matt and his colleagues developed the idea of holding fringe events at housing conferences. These were to be called House Parties. They were designed to attract a new generation of housing people and innovators who would not normally attend traditional conferences. The first was planned to take place at the Institute of Housing’s main conference in Manchester.

A few days before the conference I was attending a funeral when I received a phone call from the Institute’s chief executive. She tried to persuade me to cancel the House Party as she saw it as a threat to the main conference. I responded that I believed fringe events were a thing of the future and that people who attended them would boost attendance at the main conferences. I compared it with what had happened at the Edinburgh Festival many years before. We agreed to differ. The House Party went ahead and was a tremendous success. I am pleased to say they are now a feature at most housing conferences today. Once again HACT was ahead of its time.

I enjoyed my time as chair of HACT. But throughout my career I have never overstayed my welcome. There came a time when I decided a new chair was required to take HACT to the next stage of its development. To be honest I could no longer fully understand some of the initiatives Matt and his excellent team were developing. It was time to go. Gavin became the new chair and subsequently Andrew became chief executive. Together, they have led HACT to even greater things. A charity that is once again at the heart of innovation and new ideas in the housing and care sector. One that is financially viable in a way we could not have envisaged only a few years ago. I am pleased that as chair and steward for a few short years I played a small part in enabling HACT to survive and transform. The credit mainly goes to Matt, Andrew, and their colleagues, to Gavin and an inspirational board of trustees, and to a group of housing associations who provided help and support in a time of need. I thank them all.

The role of a steward is for a brief time to have the privilege of leading organisations like HACT. To take what is handed to you and to pass it on in a better state while staying true to its values and purpose. I hope I did that.

Tom Murtha.

The Handshake.

Many in the housing sector know that I was born and raised in social housing. Some are aware that I believe I owe my life to social housing. A few have even heard the story that social housing rescued my family when we were homeless in the 1960s. On this evidence it is reasonable to assume that I had always intended to work in social housing.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I left school when I was 16 to work in a factory as a trainee accountant. After 2 years I decided that I wanted to go to college to train as a PE teacher. I spent the next 2 years studying for A levels at a college of further education and I began my degree course in history at Goldsmiths College in 1972. I left in 1976 with a degree in history, a post graduate teaching certificate and a wife.

I was unemployed living in London with no idea what I wanted to do next. Despite my excellent academic and sporting qualifications I was unable to find a job in teaching. I was told later that I was deemed to be too “political” for a teaching career. I spent the long hot summer of 1976 waiting for the call that never came.

Until I received one from my Dad. He told me that there was a job going at Leicester City Council in The Renewal Strategy Team, working with a man called John Perry. I told him that I knew nothing about urban renewal or housing. He said that it would not be a problem as most of them didn’t either! My Dad always had a low opinion of the Team who had joined his section in the housing department some months earlier.

I applied and much to my surprise I was appointed as Leicester’s first housing liaison officer. Apparently it surprised other people as well as I was not the first choice. The preferred candidate was a retired police officer who had given John Perry a masonic handshake at the end of his interview. Anyone who knows John would know that this would not impress him. I got the job.

So when I am asked how I became involved in housing? I could answer that it was because I spent my early life in social housing, and I owe my life to it. I could answer that I had been inspired by Cathy Come Home in 1966, which echoed my own experience of being homeless. I could say that it enabled me to experience the most rewarding career that I could imagine. All of these things are true. But the real reason is because of a masonic handshake given to a man who inspired my early career and who still inspires me to this day.

Richard’s Legacy.

I miss my friend Richard Farnell who died in 2018. I wrote a tribute to him here https://tommurtha.wordpress.com/2018/09/08/a-gentle-giant/. I miss him more at the moment during Lockdown and now with the publishing of the report by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Housing Commission. Apart from being my chair and my friend, Richard was an academic and a theologian. He was involved in almost every church report on housing, regeneration, poverty and social justice written in the last 30 years. I’m sure he would have played a major role in the writing of the latest report

I am sure we would have debated long and hard the details of the report. I would probably have said it was not radical enough and Richard would have pointed out that it was very radical for the Church. We would have agreed in the need for HAs and the Church to work more closely together as they did in the past when we were young. We would probably have discussed whether the giant housing associations that exist today could really deliver the type of locally based social housing working with communities as described in the report. Or whether we needed to return to the community based and led organisations that existed when churches and local groups established many housing associations in the 1960s.

Certainly we would have supported the proposal that more Church land should be released to enable real social rent homes to be built. We would have welcomed the challenge to the Orwellian use of the word affordable which is still used to describe something that isn’t to those in the greatest need. Richard and I both knew that only real social housing, housing at social rent, will overcome the housing crisis. We would have recognised that the report is as big a challenge to the government and the housing sector as it is to the Church. I am sure if he had lived the Bishop of Loughborough would have had a direct line to Richard, seeking his words of wisdom and advice. Just as I did for many years. As I said I miss him, but his legacy goes on in a report that bears the hallmark of a man who recognised that ‘housing and communities are part of the mission and ministry of the Church of England.’

Kieran’s First Game.

Kieran with Pat Nevin the day he was a mascot.

Dad never took me to a football match. I guess he was too busy working. He came to watch me play occasionally but not often. That is why I went to my first game at Filbert Street to watch Leicester City play Atletico Madrid in a European Cup Winners Cup game in 1961 with a stranger from the pub where we lived. You might ask why Leicester, a club that has never won the FA Cup, was playing in a European competition for Cup Winners? It is a good football quiz question. You will have to look it up.

When Kieran was born in 1983, I was determined that one day I would take him to a game. We were living in Coventry at the time. We celebrated with our neighbours the day Coventry won the1987 Cup Final. But we never attended a game. We left Coventry the following year and moved to Merseyside.

As Kieran grew older the time came for me to decide which team to support. On Merseyside we were spoiled for choice. We could have gone to Anfield or Goodison Park but as a Leicester supporter I could not bring myself to do that.

We were living on the Wirral not far from Prenton Park the home of Tranmere Rovers. To be honest I knew little about the club except that the famous Dixie Dean had once played for them. They were in the old 3rd Division and were unlikely to compromise my support of Leicester City. How wrong I was.

On New Year’s Day 1991 I decided the day had arrived and Kieran and I set out from our house to walk to Prenton Park. As we entered the ageing ground, I was surprised to see that almost 10000 people were packed into stands and terraces to watch Tranmere take on Southend.

We found our seats just as Tranmere kicked off. Within 7 seconds they had scored. I am sure Kieran thought that all games began like this, but we had witnessed something special. Tony Thomas had scored one of the fastest goals in League history. Tranmere went on to win 3-1. We were hooked.

We attended almost every other home game that season. Culminating in a Leyland Daf Cup Final at Wembley which we lost. Then on Kieran’s birthday 9th June, I woke him early to take him to Wembley again to see our team beat Bolton Wanderers in the Play Off Final. We had been to Wembley twice in our first year supporting the club and won promotion to Division 2. The champagne was truly on ice.

What followed was a whirlwind. After a quiet start in Division 2 Tranmere became a major force in the league. The turning point was the signing of John Aldridge and Pat Nevin. In the following years Tranmere reached the Play Offs in three successive seasons. Losing three times in the semifinals.

One of those games was against Leicester at Filbert Street. Kieran and I travelled down to my hometown from Merseyside. We stood in almost the same spot where I had stood for my first game in 1961. I looked over to the Kop where I used to stand with my friends in the late 1960s. Yet I jumped and cheered with Kieran when Tranmere scored. My allegiance had changed. Sadly, we shared a long journey home in silence after a 2-1 defeat.

The halcyon days continued throughout the 1990s. We lost a League Cup semifinal at Villa Park on penalties, when some dodgy refereeing cheated us of victory after winning the first leg 3-1. There were also famous victories in the FA Cup. Including one against Everton at Goodison, and a miraculous fightback against Southampton.

In 2000 Kieran and I were at Wembley again to see Tranmere take on Leicester in what was then called The Worthington Cup. This too ended in defeat. Kieran went to University the following year and we moved away from Merseyside. There were still some notable victories, but Tranmere were in a long decline and eventually fell out of the Football League.

In recent years they have climbed back into the League and Kieran and I have been back to Wembley again with Vishva to see Play Off victories and defeats.

The pandemic has put an end to that. But on a cold Friday night I still think about those glory days with Kieran at Prenton Park. Sitting high in the stands watching the mighty Tranmere in their prime. When Nevin was jinking down the wing, leaving hapless defenders in his wake, pausing to cross the ball onto the rising head of Aldridge who would power it majestically into the net. The crowd would rise as one. We would rise too, turn to face each other and hug, and for a precious moment all would be right in the world. Moments I will cherish till the end of my days.

How Long?

(A blog I have updated based on a speech I made to a Tai Pawb Conference)

Fighting discrimination and prejudice runs in my family. My Dad told of an incident during the Second World War when he and his brothers defended a group of black American soldiers who were being attacked by their own military police for drinking in the wrong pub in Leicester. Black Americans could fight and die for their country, they could be world champions like Joe Louis or Jesse Owens, but they were still regarded as second class citizens and barred from many supposedly white only institutions. Racism, segregation and discrimination were part of their everyday life. Sadly, it still is today.

Growing up.

I grew up in the 1960s, with the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in the USA and the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa. They shaped my values and desire to challenge racism and discrimination in all of its forms. My first experience of racism was at school in 1964. There was a General Election in that year and a Conservative candidate in Smethwick campaigned on a racist platform using racist slogans. These were repeated by friends in the school playground in front of black and Asian children. I challenged this but I was a lone voice. Even the teachers allowed it to continue. Overt racism and discrimination were commonplace in most schools during the 1960s.

By the 1970s my home town of Leicester was already one of the most diverse cities in Britain. Before the Second World War people migrated to Leicester from all over the UK and beyond. My Dad moved to the city to find work from Gateshead in 1939. After the War many refugees came from Eastern Europe. In the 1950s and 1960s African Caribbean people began to arrive. I remember walking down the road one day and seeing a black man for the first time. I stared and was reprimanded by my Dad. He told me that the man was just the same as us, only a different colour.

In the 1960s and 1970s many East African Asians found refuge in Leicester, despite being warned not to come by the City Council. My wife Vishva was among them. We were married in 1973. It was one of the first so called mixed marriages in the city. I have written elsewhere how it was received by the Asian and white communities.

Over the years the newcomers experienced a mixed and sometimes hostile reception. The National Front gained support in the city and threatened to win political power. I became Secretary to a group that was established to promote racial harmony and challenge the NF. It was an exciting and sometimes dangerous time for those involved. My family were threatened and I had to go ex-directory. Eventually the NF were defeated and Leicester began to develop as a harmonious multi-cultural and diverse city. There are still problems and some racism and discrimination still exists, but the city has a reputation for successful co-existence and integration.

A career in housing.

In 1976 I began working for Leicester City Council as a community worker in the heart of the inner city. My job was to encourage different communities to come together to improve neighborhoods as part of the urban renewal programme set up by John Perry. Working together for a common cause helped to create a better understanding between different communities.

However, tensions still existed in Leicester and many cities. In 1981 a combination of racism, discrimination, poverty and unemployment created a powder keg of resentment that exploded on the streets of Brixton, Handsworth, Toxteth and in other inner city areas. I was working for the National Housing Federation at the time and the social unrest was the talk of the main housing conference in that year. At a Sunday morning session a young housing officer from the Commission for Racial Equality challenged the housing sector to respond to the accusation that it was racist and guilty of direct and indirect discrimination and that this had contributed to the urban unrest.

The National Housing Federation took up the challenge and established the sector’s first Race and Housing Group to investigate the issues and make recommendations. Because of my work in that area, I was asked to be Secretary to the group. The first Race and Housing Report was published the following year. It found that many housing associations and local authorities were institutionally racist and were discriminating both in the provision of housing services and employment. It made a number of recommendations which are still relevant today. I believe that this report was a milestone in the long struggle for black and minority ethnic equality in the housing sector.

The situation immediately following the publication of the first Race and Housing Report looked promising. Housing associations began to keep ethnic records and introduced a number of policies to address racism and discrimination. Positive action programmes were introduced which helped to develop future black and Asian leaders. I was involved in these and acted as a coach and mentor.

BME led housing associations were established with the support of the housing regulator and existing housing associations. I was involved in a number of BME housing associations and was chair of a charitable trust which funded them in the North West. Housing associations were encouraged to promote BME led businesses in their supply chains. New developments and rehabilitations took account of the needs of diverse communities in size and design. A crucial factor was that the housing regulator was directly involved and monitored work in this area and took action if associations were failing to promote equality. As was the CRE and eventually the Audit Commission

By the 1990s the success of this work was beginning to show. The number of BME people housed and employed in the sector grew. BME associations were thriving. A number of senior positions at executive and board level were held by people from BME communities. I was a member of the next major enquiry in the 1990s which showed that there was a business case for promoting diversity as well as a moral one. Both the Housing Corporation and the Audit Commission continued to promote equality and diversity in all of its forms.

As I look back to that time, I am sad to see that there are now probably fewer people from BME communities involved in housing than there were then and even fewer in senior positions. A number of those who were involved grew dissolutioned with the sector and have moved on to senior positions elsewhere. I ask myself why we have failed so spectacularly to continue to employ and promote people from BME communities. Both at board and executive level the number of BME people is far less than you would expect given the numbers in the UK, and certainly less than there were in the 1980s and 1990s.

We are going backwards. A recent survey run by Inside Housing in November 2017 showed that black and Asian people made up only 4.5% of all executives in the sector, contrasting with the fact that 17% of social renting households in England in 2015/16 were headed by a ‘non-white person’. The survey also looked at board level and found only 50 BME board members out of 735 in total (or 6.8%), with 18 boards having no BME representation at all. The survey also showed the compacency in the sector with a woefully low rate of returns.

Other reports show that the number of people that we house from BME communities is reducing. In a report published last year the Chartered Institute of Housing showed that the housing sector is still predominantly male and pale. They made a number of recommendations to address this. I have also been a member of the Housing and Migration Network which has found that housing associations are no longer providing homes for new migrants in the way they once did. And since the Brexit vote the number of race hate crimes is increasing.

Today.

Many groups and organisations including BME National and the Housing Diversity Network and others are still doing excellent work in this area. BME associations still exist, and are often among the best performers in the sector. Yet there is still too few black and Asian leaders and BME communities still suffer discrimination in housing and other services. We were once told it would take time for ‘pipeline’ to produce black and Asian leaders in the sector. Yet a recent survey in Inside Housing showed that out of 40 CEO appointments in the last two years only 2 black or Asian people were recruited. A once in a generation chance to change the diversity at the most senior level in social housing has been lost. After 40 years I have to ask, how long must we wait?

Despite what some say, the dearth of leaders is not due to a lack of good quality candidates. My own experience shows that there are many excellent candidates already working in housing. When I received an honorary doctorate from the University of Birmingham in 2009 a majority of those graduating in the Business School were from BME communities. Many of these people do not join the housing sector and if they do very few seem to become leaders. I wonder why? If the lack of good quality candidates is not the reason for our failure the fault must lie elsewhere. Are we still still guilty of racism and discrimination? Is there a lack of real commitment to address the issue?

Those who make appointments are at the root of the issue. In my career I appointed a number of black and Asian leaders to senior and chief executive roles. I also appointed black and Asian chairs and non-executives. It was part of the culture of the organisations I worked for to do so. Is this culture lacking in some associations today? Why have we made progress in other areas of diversity but not here? The housing association sector once had a proud record of promoting BME diversity at all levels. Unless we truly embed the issue into the culture of our current organisations that record is in danger of becoming even more tarnished than it appears to be today.

I genuinely believe that the one of the main differences between what happened nearly 40 years ago and now, apart from the involvement of the regulator, is that the challenge to housing associations was much stronger then. Racism was openly discussed and even though it was uncomfortable for many, it was recognised as being at the heart of the issue. Today we take a less challenging and less confrontational approach. I was recently told by a senior housing leader that my claim that the sector was institutionally racist was ‘not helpful’ I believe that institutional racism still exists in social housing and unless we address this we will continue to fail. The evidence is all around at all levels in society. Social housing is not immune.

I have spent the last 50 years campaigning for real progress in equality and diversity. I am proud of what we once achieved. But I am sad that we are now failing. My time is almost done. The evidence shows that my generation of leaders have failed on their latest watch. It is up to you, the next generation, to continue the struggle to deliver real and lasting equality in housing and beyond. To answer the question posed by James Baldwin, how long?

Abuse.

‪A report today highlights sexual abuse in sport. It revived a memory of something I have never discussed openly.

When I was 16/17 I was playing football for three teams in Leicester. I was also in the Leicester Boys under 18s squad. I was often asked to join other clubs. One of the Leicester Boys coaches also ran the best youth team‬‪ in the county. He asked me to join it. He said I needed a physical before doing so and invited me to his house. Naively I accepted and rode there one night on my motor bike. It soon became clear that the examination was going much further than I thought appropriate. I told him this in a few‬‪ choice words and quickly left the house.

I rode over to the local boys club and told my best friend Malc what had happened. He replied, “didn’t you know? He tries it on with everyone.” Apparently it was well known among the local teams that you didn’t visit his house alone.

I never told anyone else. I don’t know why. I realise now that I should have done. This is how he got away with it. It was never reported. I’m not aware that the authorities were ever told. I’ve no idea how many boys he did this to. All I knew was that he was very influential in local football and continued to be so.

Soon afterwards I lost my place in the Leicester Boys squad. It might not be linked. I will never‬‪ know. Maybe I was no longer good enough. I continued to play in the local leagues until I went to University a few years later. But never for any team that he was involved with.

I’m not aware of any deep seated long term issue arising from the encounter. Perhaps I was just lucky. It’s probably a minor incident in some ways but I knew it was abuse. The thing that I now remember the most is my friend’s comment. “He tries it on everyone.” How many more did the same?

He’s dead now‬