Replacing the irreplaceable

I was approached recently by head-hunters leading the search for the next Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation (NHF). I am sure many others have been contacted also. No, they were not canvassing me for the post! That would never happen. They wanted to know my thoughts on who might be suitable for the role. I am often approached for advice when senior housing roles are advertised. I asked them to send me the details of the role and said that I would respond the next day. This is what I said.

Since 1976, I have worked with three outstanding chief executives of the NHF, Richard Best, Jim Coulter and David Orr. Richard came from a church housing trust, Jim from a small housing association and David from the Scottish equivalent of the NHF. All had experience of social housing and all grew into the role to become excellent chief executives. All were excellent communicators. Interestingly, all were said to be irreplaceable which of course is never true.

It is important that the chief executive can represent a very diverse housing sector and be able to talk to the government and other stakeholders. I believe an empathy for the sector’s social role is essential. This requires an interesting mix of business acumen and social purpose. I am afraid I no longer mix in senior government and civil service circles but I am sure that this experience is also relevant. Experience of similar roles in other sectors might also be useful. My knowledge of suitable private sector people is limited. However I have met very few who have the social values essential for the role. Above all I believe the role provides a great opportunity to go to the next generation of leaders and to recognise diversity in all of its forms in a sector that is still dominated by white men.

With all these things in mind I suggested a number of people who met my criteria. Obviously, I won’t divulge their names. I put forward seven women and six men. A diverse total of thirteen, two of whom were BME candidates. The majority would certainly meet the next generation criteria.

I don’t know if any of my suggestions will make the final shortlist or be selected for this important role. It will be interesting to see. I hope that, whoever is appointed, they meet my essential criteria of a strong empathy for the sector’s social values. I have used this criteria in every senior appointment I have made. Most recently when appointing a chief executive and a chair at Plus Dane. It has never failed me yet. As the purpose of social housing continues to be debated, a bedrock based upon social values becomes even more important. Even the best leaders are transitory, strong social values are permanent.


Are we immune?

Well are we?

The number of reports of people in senior positions abusing their power to sexually harass, abuse, bully or discriminate has made depressing and shameful reading in the last few months. The housing sector has been surprisingly silent on the subject. Therefore I was pleased to see that Inside Housing are to investigate the issue and are currently carrying out a survey on harassment and discrimination. I do not know what the outcome will be but my own experience tells me that we are not immune.

I have witnessed and been involved in many examples of senior people abusing their power in such a way. These are just three examples. I have not mentioned the names of the people or the associations involved even though in all of the cases the issues were reported to the appropriate bodies and dealt with.

The first case involved a number of senior managers circulating racist and sexist pornographic material. When challenged they described it as normal office banter! They were all dismissed and at tribunal the chair in upholding the decision to dismiss confirmed that the material was racist and sexist pornography and that in no way could it be described as banter.

The second case involved a Chief Executive who harassed female members of staff to such an extent that some became ill with stress. For some time it was not reported for fear of retribution. When it was eventually discovered during investigations into poor performance, the Chief Executive was dismissed. Again there was a strong denial that he had done anything wrong. The case did not go to tribunal as the Chief Executive did not appeal against his dismissal.

The third case is more difficult to define as some might think that it does not fall under the category of abuse of power. In my view it does. I was once involved in an association where it was quite normal for senior executives to be in relationships with junior members of staff. When challenged they would claim that if it was ‘mutually consenting’ there was nothing wrong. These type of relationships always involve an abuse of power. If the relationship ended it was always the more junior member who would suffer and often leave the organisation. Eventually a new leadership made it clear that such relationships were not acceptable and the culture changed.

In all of these cases the senior members of staff who were responsible for the culture of an organisation allowed behaviours to develop which in their view were acceptable and even the norm. It is the Boards responsibility to make it clear that such behaviour be it harassment, bullying, discrimination or any other abuse of power is totally unacceptable. Leaders and others should be judged by such criteria. If found wanting there should be zero tolerance for failure to maintain such standards. It is only when such a culture is embedded in an organisation and visible at every level will those who are the subject of harassment abuse or discrimination feel comfortable to come forward and report it. Are you confident that such a culture exists in your organisation?

Unsung Heroes

I attended recently a funeral for an old work colleague. His name was John Heverin. We worked together at MIH (now Riverside) in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact John was on the interview panel that appointed me. We were both regional directors. John was the director responsible for the transfer of the homes owned by Runcorn New Town to Riverside. More importantly he was the man who led the regeneration of the infamous Southgate Estate originally designed by Stirling. John and his team worked with the local community to transform it into a place where people wanted to live.

As I sat listening to the tributes from his family, friends and work mates, I began to realise that John was one of the unsung heroes of social housing. As I looked around the crematorium I saw that the room was full of unsung heroes. People who work, often without recognition, to provide homes for those who need them most.

John never appeared in any new year honours list. He was never voted into a housing power player top 50. He was not part of the conference circuit. He rarely spoke at seminars. And as far as I know he did not write articles for our trade press. He just did his job, as his son said in his tribute. Just as thousands of others working in housing, just do their job. But what a job? Helping to provide one of our basic human rights, a home.

Not many of you who read this will have heard of John. Neither will have heard the heartfelt comments of those who worked with him. And sadly we rarely hear about the thousands of other unsung heroes in the housing sector.

I have in the past criticised some of our housing leaders. I think some have failed to challenge the government whose policies have increased poverty, inequality and homelessness. I have warned that some are moving away from our original social purpose. I have commented upon the slow death of social housing especially the loss of social rent homes. Yet I have only praise for those in our sector who work tirelessly, in increasingly difficult circumstances, to continue to provide social homes at a time when we need them most.

John will always be remembered by his family and his friends. I’m sure his work colleagues will also think of him. Memories of those who have passed on are a great legacy. But he and thousands of others working in social housing have a greater legacy. As I said on the eve of John’s funeral. ‘Many thousands of people will sleep safely tonight in a warm, decent, secure and genuinely affordable home because of John and many like him.’ These are unsung heroes of social housing. In remembering John I pay tribute to them all.

Race and Housing. Why are we still failing?

What am I most proud of in my career?

It is not bringing together and becoming chief executive of one of the leading housing and care groups in the sector. It is not helping to establish SHOUT, the campaign for social housing.

Tom Murtha
Tom Murtha, Chair of North Wales Housing

It is not even being chair of North Wales Housing. What I am most proud of is my work in race and diversity. In my personal and in my professional life, it has brought me the most joy and the most despair.

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. 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 discriminating both in the provision of housing services and employment. It made a number of recommendations which sadly 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 BME 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 helped establish 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. 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.

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 eventually 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. 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 BME individuals 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.

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 recently been a member of the Housing and Migration Network which has found that housing associations are no longer providing homes for new immigrants as they once did. And since the Brexit vote the number of race hate crimes is increasing.

What about now?

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 BME leaders and BME communities still suffer discrimination in housing and other services.

This dearth of leaders is not due to a lack of good quality candidates. When I received an honorary doctorate from the University of Birmingham in 2009 a majority of those graduating 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 guilty of discrimination? Or is there a lack of real commitment to address the issue? In my career I appointed a number of BME leaders to senior and chief executive roles. I also appointed BME 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? We have made progress in other areas of diversity but not here.


As we continue to fail I would recommend that we return to some of the successful policies of the past and take on some new ones:

  • I would introduce targets at executive and board level.
  • I would re-establish positive action programmes.
  • I would promote our work and housing as a career to the 1,000s of BME graduates who leave university each year.
  • I would make it a regulatory requirement for all housing associations to show real progress in this area.

Finally, there is an initiative in England called Leadership 2025. I would like to suggest establishing a Welsh version of this where every housing association signs up to deliver improvement in this area and are publicly held to account for success or failure. (The details are here: The Altair Review Online)

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 organisations that record is in danger of becoming even more tarnished than it appears to be today.

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.


A Wakeup Call


My son, Kieran, knows me too well. At Christmas he gave me a book. It is called, “Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race.” It is written by Reni Eddo-Lodge, who has worked as a freelancer for Inside Housing. Kieran knows that I have spent the last 40 years of my career challenging the housing association sector on race and housing. He also knows that I have become very frustrated in recent years at the lack of progress in this area. He knows that I believe strongly that we will not move forward unless we realise that structural racism still exists in our society and that we in housing are not immune to it. We have spent too long addressing the symptoms of the issue and not the cause. Reni’s book eloquently identifies this when she says that the vast majority of white people “refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms.”

The results of this refusal are again shown by recent research on BME leadership in our sector and elsewhere. Research by Inside Housing has shown that we are going backwards on race and housing. Black and Asian people only account for 4.5% of housing association executives and there are only 50 BME non-executives. Many housing associations have no executives or non-executives from BME communities Research also shows that the number of people from BME communities we provide homes for is also reducing. This is not surprising as BME people are more likely to feel the full effects of austerity and are more likely to be excluded from housing association homes.

These findings are not new. I was secretary to the first Race and Housing Enquiry in 1982 which identified that in services and employment housing associations were failing Black and Asian people. I was a member of the second enquiry in the 1990s which revealed that we were still failing. I contributed to the recent CIOH enquiry which again showed that we have made little progress, especially in senior appointments. All these enquiries made recommendations that were similar. I have no doubt that for a short time they produced some results and improvement. However despite some good work they were not sustained or completely embedded in housing associations.

Last year London housing associations launched Leadership 2025 in response to this continued failure. The initiative includes a set of commitments that are similar to those that have been made repeatedly over the last 40 years. And this week Inside Housing launched its own campaign called Inclusive Futures with similar challenges and pledges. The details are here. Of course I welcome these initiatives. The challenges and pledges they contain are ones that we should all sign up to, but my experience of over 40 years of similar campaigns convince me that they do not go far enough.

They mainly seek to address the symptoms and not the cause of our continued failure to promote and appoint people from Black and Asian communities. The first stage that is missing in all of these initiatives is the acceptance that we are the problem. We need to address this as part of any solution. The default position in almost all HAs and in most other organisations is that predominantly white men in positions of power appoint predominantly white men to similar positions. This has changed slightly in recent years with the appointment of more women but it has gone backwards in the appointment of BME people. These same predominantly white men also set the culture of most organisations. Unless we realise that this structural racism exists in most of our cultures, it will not change. As the book says “it is our problem not theirs.”

Many will find this uncomfortable and some will reject it. However, I believe that racism in our society never went away. It went underground. Brexit has legitimised it. Recent British Social Attitude surveys show an increase in people who admit to racism. The sharpest rise is in white professional men aged 35 to 64 who are highly educated and are high earners. Exactly the men who hold positions of power. But the real issue is not just about personal prejudice it is the collective effects of bias at all levels in our society. This is structural racism. The HA sector reflects this as much as any other. Until we recognise and address this we will not move forward.

As a first step I recommend that you read the book. The publicity says, “It is a wakeup call to a nation in denial about the structural racism at its heart.” For the housing association sector this wakeup call is long overdue. We should support the initiatives by Inside Housing and others but I am fearful that we will repeat the failure of previous initiatives going back 40 years, unless we address the problem within.


A Quantum Leap

I attended my first Institute of Housing (CIOH) event in 1977. It was a weekend course on housing management at Beamish Hall in County Durham. It was my first experience of the CIOH and of people working in the housing sector. One of the main speakers was Geoff Filkin (now Lord Filkin) who was then the Director of Housing at Merseyside Improved Houses (now Riverside Group). He described the work they were doing in some of the most deprived areas of Merseyside. I was so inspired by what he said that I decided that one day I would work there.

It took me ten years to achieve that ambition. By 1987 I was deputy director of a small housing association in Birmingham. I knew that if I was ever to become a chief executive I would need experience of working at a senior level in a large housing association. At that time Riverside was one of the associations that aspiring leaders wanted to join.

I applied three times. The first time I was not interviewed. On the second occasion I was interviewed but not successful. However, the Deputy Chief Executive recommended me for another senior post with a large Manchester housing association. Unfortunately my application to them was also unsuccessful. So it was in the autumn of 1987 that I applied for the third time to become an executive director at Riverside.

The first interview was fairly straightforward and I learned that night that I had been selected for the second stage. This was a gruelling two day affair some weeks later. When I arrived for the second stage I discovered that there were five other candidates, two internals and three externals, including Mathew Gardiner (now Chief Executive of Trafford Housing Trust). I was always wary of internal candidates but I knew by reputation that Mathew would be the main competition.

The first day consisted of a number of one to one discussions with the executive team and a long interview with a panel of three which included the chief executive, Barry Natton. I knew Barry from my time at the National Housing Federation. He was passionate about social housing and was often uncompromising in his approach. To put it bluntly he “did not suffer fools gladly”. He believed in putting pressure on people during interviews. On the basis that if you could handle that pressure you could deal with the demands of senior leadership. It is not something I would do today but it was common at the time. He knew I was a smoker and said that I was weak willed because I could not give up even though Riverside was a no smoking environment. I countered by saying that I was actually strong willed as I could resist smoking during office hours and only smoke in my leisure time. He was not convinced but I had not buckled under pressure.

The next stage was a role play based upon real events. At the time Runcorn New Town was transferring its homes to a number of housing associations. Riverside was one of the main recipients. The role play was based upon negotiations with trade unions representing New Town employees. I was asked to play the role of Riverside’s main negotiator. The panel represented the three unions involved. I knew that Barry would again give me a hard time so I said that his union only had observation rights. He protested but I was allowed to set the rules and he remained silent. Luckily the other two members of the panel were easier to deal with. At the end of the process I was told that I was through to the final stage. This was an interview with the Board.

Only four of us were selected for the second day. The internal candidates had been excluded. We were told in the morning that there were two jobs to be filled. The Board interview was again straightforward even though the Chair told me that my application was the worst written form he had ever seen. We later learned that the Board always followed the recommendations of the interview panel. It was simply a rubber stamping exercise. At the end of the morning Barry came into the waiting room and informed us that Mathew and I had been appointed. The other two candidates left and Mathew and I discussed what salary we should ask for. The post had been advertised at circa £19,000. We agreed to ask for to ask for that. Barry returned told us that the offer was £18,500 take it or leave it. That was Barry’s way. We gladly accepted. I had achieved another ambition in my career and was delighted to rush off to tell my wife and my parents.

Mathew and I joined Riverside on 4th January 1988. Just in time to celebrate their 60th Anniversary. We soon learned that the panel had produced a report for the Board on the interview process. They were keen to learn why two excellent internal candidates had not been successful. The report stated that in terms of experience Mathew and I were a quantum leap ahead of the others. Whether this was true I cannot say. What we both had was wider experience of the housing sector. The report lead to the setting up of Riverside’s leadership development programme. Many future housing association chief executives benefited from that programme and some of Riverside’s current leadership team. It is commonplace now but then it was unique. Mathew and I still joke about the quantum leap. In reality it is only a small step but in terms of our careers it was a massive leap. Riverside gave us the foundation to go on and become chief executives. I for one am eternally grateful for that.

The Call of a Cuckoo

Mam loved cuckoo clocks. I don’t know why. She just did. She always talked about them and of her wish to own one. In 1967 I bought her a traditional cuckoo clock on a school trip to Austria. It hung in their front room and gave her many hours of pleasure. Every week, Dad would wind it by pulling the weights to ensure it kept going. Mam could not enter a room unless a clock was ticking and she could not sleep without a ticking clock.

The clock hung in many front rooms until they moved into their final home, a council bungalow, in the 1980s. The cuckoo clock had pride of place in their living room, until one day it stopped. Dad tried to get it going again, to no avail. It remained silent.

Mam became depressed. We had seen her sad before but never in a state of depression. Dad had a series of mental health episodes in his life and my brother still suffers with depression and other mental health issues, but not Mam. She had experienced much in her life including the loss of a son and several homes. Yet she always showed a positive face. To see her depressed was so unusual that all the family became worried. Trips to the doctor didn’t help. He just put it down to her age and gave her some pills. Dad did not know what to do.

My sisters rang me to ask me to visit to see if it would help. I visited on a number of occasions. There was no change. One day my brother said that she was missing her cuckoo clock. I was asked to buy her another. I could not find an exact match. I eventually bought a different version. I gave it to her and Dad fixed it to the wall next to the old one. She would not let him take it down. Once more the room was filled with the sound of a ticking clock and cuckoo chimes on the hour and half hour.

Within a few days the depression began to lift and in a few weeks she was back to her old self. I have no idea if the two things were linked. I know enough about depression to know it is unlikely. If they were linked I cannot see how. All I know is Mam did not suffer from depression again until Dad died in 1997. This she recovered from. She never recovered from the one that descended in 2003 when my two sisters died within a few months of each other. That I can understand. It finally led to her death in the same year.

Some weeks after the new clock was installed, the old one started working again. No one questioned this. It just seemed right that it should. For the rest of her days, two clocks ticked and cuckooed in the room. This is why she became known as cuckoo grandma to some of her many grandchildren.

The clocks are silent now. They are stored in my attic. Even now I associate the call of a cuckoo with Mam. I think of her every day. I think of her most of all in early summer when I hear the sound of the first cuckoo reminding me that she is still there. Just as she always was.