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.


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?


‪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

Matthew Gardiner

With Matthew and Vishva at a Riverside Dinner long ago.

I was not surprised when I heard the news that Matthew Gardiner was moving on to the next stage of his career. 40 years in social housing is a long time. Not for Matthew though as I’ve no doubt every day, if not every minute has been different. Matthew would never use the R word to describe this move , perhaps he is taking a “quantum leap”.

The term is private joke between us. It describes the first time we met in the Autumn of 1987. We were both looking for our first executive roles and we were on the shortlist for a directors post at what is now Riverside. My heart sank when I heard Matthew was the competition. In those days you got to know the good people on the interview circuit. Matthew had a reputation as being one of the best. Even though he had not been in social housing for long. I think he was working for the Regulator at the time. In the end after a gruelling interview process, we were both appointed.

A paper was subsequently presented to the board to explain why no internal candidate had been appointed. It said that the difference between Mathew and I and the others interviewed was a quantum leap.

Matthew and I have worked together, on and off, over the last 30 year. During our time at Riverside he was always the one with new ideas and new ways of working. They sparked out of him by the minute. The problem was controlling them and putting them into practice. Not all of them worked. But those that did were revolutionary. He was always a maverick, which was the name of one of the first major projects he established at Riverside. He was also one of the first to introduce private finance into the sector via the HACO fund.

Mathew and I were colleagues but we also became friends. We shared highs and lows at work and in our personal lives. We have remained friends ever since.

Mathew went on to work in financial consultancy. Then like me he became a chief executive eventually with Trafford Housing Trust. He has written elsewhere that he planned to stay for 2 or 3 years. He stayed for 17! Throughout this time he continued to challenge and innovate. He was almost always the first name mentioned when anyone was discussing new ideas and innovation in the sector.

He was also the first name I thought of when I began to appoint new trustees when I became chair of HACT. I wanted people who would bring about change and I knew Matthew would do that. As a trustee he was at the heart of a programme which transformed the charity from a bankrupt organisation which had lost its way to the vibrant social ideas business it is today. Matthew was ideal for this role with his business acumen and a head full of ideas.

One of my favourite times in recent years was sharing the platform with him at a Fringe event at a CIH Conference a few years ago. The years rolled away as we challenged each other and I was transported back to the board room at Riverside long ago. Debating the major issues of the day with him. Our colleagues thought we were in competition then. Some at the Fringe event thought so too. We never were. We were different but we always shared the same purpose.

Matthew once said I had a voice. Well he had a brain, which he used to challenge the system to find new ways of working. I never had that intellect and I was in awe of it when I first met him as I am today. What we did have in common then and now is that the true values of social housing continues to run in our veins.

Thank you Matthew for all you have done to help transform the lives of many. I wait with baited breath to see what happens next. Don’t go too far as I’m sure that brain and your ideas will be needed as we hopefully build again when, and if, the pandemic passes.

Whither Social Housing?

I have written this piece to mark the last day of Jon Land as the crusading editor of the 24 Housing titles. Jon has been a friend and supporter of social housing and he was one of the first to give me a platform for my rants. I thank him for both.

 I have never witnessed such fevered speculation in the housing association world. There is talk of government plans to “nationalise” the sector to use every last drop of its assets to build more homes for sale for “hard working families” There are rumours of a deal with the government over the Right to Buy which will see the sale of social rented homes to meet the ownership aspirations of the government and some of our tenants. I am sure our leaders will have brokered a deal which includes guaranteed funding for replacements. But how can we believe the word of a government that has failed so dismally to replace 10000s of council homes that have been sold in recent years? Even if homes are replaced, social rented homes will not be replaced by low rent housing. It is also likely that 100000s of council owned social homes will have to be sold to fund the deal. By any arithmetic this will lead to an overall loss of social rented homes when we most need them.

I am too far away from these discussions to know what will happen in the next few weeks and I do not have a crystal ball. Whatever happens I do know that there will be one loser. People on low incomes in need of low cost rented housing. They seem to have fallen off the agenda along with the term social housing itself.

All this is happening as the housing association world comes together for another annual conference. Some of you will have noticed that it is no longer called the social housing conference even though the tenure still makes up the majority of our work. Apparently the term “gets in the way” I am pleased to note that there is at least a debate at the conference titled “does social housing have a future?” It is good to see that all of the speakers at this session are women. Two of whom, Julia Unwin and Helen Collins, I know well and admire greatly.

I am not able to attend the debate as I will be speaking at an AGM in Nottingham. I hope that those involved answer one question. Who will provide a home for poor people and those on low incomes in future? Julie Unwin’s own research foundation shows that low rents play a major role in reducing poverty. As rents have increased through the so called affordable rent regime so too has poverty. Further research has revealed that poverty will increase further as rents become more un-affordable. Other research by the JRF has shown that housing associations are beginning to exclude poor people as they are seen as too much of a risk. Or as the chief executive of Genesis said “they are not my problem” We already know that they are not a government priority either.

My old colleague, Helen Collins knows from practical experience that you cannot develop homes at a low rent whether it be social rent or the new style living rent without government investment. How are we going to produce homes for those in the greatest need in the absence of this investment? All of the government plans only make the situation worse for poor people in housing need. Are we just going to sit in silence as it happens? Are we finally witnessing the end of social housing as we knew it? And with it a return to the 19th and early 20th Century where poor people were housed in slums at exorbitant rents.

I have no doubt that housing associations will survive in this brave new world, but they will look and feel different. One of my non housing heroes, Bob Dylan, once wrote “May you have a strong foundation When the winds of changes shift” Housing associations prospered over the years because of their strong foundations based upon a fine balance between their social and financial values. Now it appears that for some it is only the value of their financial strength that counts. The stronger financially they become the more their social values seem to diminish, and with it the provision of social housing for those in the greatest need.

The Dress My Mother Wore

There was no sign that said, do not enter, but we all knew that Mam and Dad’s bedroom was a forbidden area. Of course that made the temptation to trespass even stronger when they were not at home. 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 their 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 the paper 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 kept it, as she kept so many things, as a memory of that special day.

The old family wedding photos, some later tinted with colour, 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, in 1997.

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 of 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.

Yes Minister. But…

A meeting room in the MHCLG 

Present. The Housing Minister and a delegation of Housing Leaders ( The Chorus ) 

The Minister. I am not happy. We have had to provide funding for the Cladding Campaign. It was becoming too noisy and disturbing Boris’s rest. You are not going to be difficult are you?

The Chorus. No Minister. 

The Minister. Good. In recognition of our special relationship we have agreed to extend the Affordable Programme for another five years. 

The Chorus. Thank you Minister. We welcome that. 

The Minister. Don’t you want to know the detail first?

The Chorus. No Minister. We trust you. 

The Minister. Well we have decided to link the programme to a new shared ownership right to buy deal. This will apply to all new developments. 

The Chorus. But Minister, you can’t just impose the right to buy on us. We are independent organisations. 

The Minister. That may be true but you have already signed up to a voluntary extension of the right to buy. This is just the logical next step to that agreement.

The Chorus. Yes Minister, but shared ownership is a legal minefield. Our customers don’t understand it and our funders will get nervous. 

The Minister. But aren’t you already supporting a shared ownership advertising campaign which extols the virtues of it? How could you possibly oppose it now?

The Chorus. Yes Minister. We are. But what we really need is more investment in social rent homes to help those on low incomes

The Minister. If that were true. Why do some of you have policies that already exclude such people.? And why are you using all of your resources to fund our Affordable Housing Programme which we all know is not affordable to poor and homeless people? And didn’t some of you say that social housing was a failed brand and that poor people were no longer your problem?

The Chorus. Yes Minister. But…

The Minister. That’s the deal. You could always challenge us on it. But that would damage our special relationship wouldn’t it? Take it or leave it. It’s up to you. 

The Chorus. Yes Minister. But…

The Minister. As I said, if you want to continue our special relationship you have to sign. After all these are all your own ideas.

The Chorus. Yes Minister. Where do we sign?

The Minister. That’s settled then. Now about Boris speaking at your Conference in September. You can guarantee another standing ovation. Can’t you?

The Chorus. Yes Minister.

The scenes fades with images of people sleeping rough in the streets and a family living in damp dilapidated overcrowded conditions.

The end.  

His Final Breakdown

Mam loved to watch soaps. From radio to television, she listened to and watched them all. Her favourite was Coronation Street. Whenever it was broadcast, the cry in the house would be “Coros on” and everything would stop. After she died I continued to watch them until I became bored with the repetitive nature of their plots. I now only watch Holby, which has recently been running a storyline on mental health. This week it reached a climax with one of the main characters having a full breakdown. I watched with tears in my eyes as it revived a memory that I have suppressed for many years.

It happened in the early 1980s, around Dad’s 60th Birthday. We had been for a meal at a restaurant run by an ex-boxer. Dad was in a good mood as he ate and drank and shared boxing stories with the owner and chef. When we had finished our meal we returned to my house in Coventry. His mood began to change. Something had upset him. It didn’t take much. Slowly a darkness descended. Mam tried to calm him but he wouldn’t listen. He became agitated and angry. He stormed out of the house shouting and swearing at us all. He had his car keys and was going to drive home to Leicester. He was in no state to drive so my brother and I tried to restrain him. Even at 60 he was too strong for us. He got into the car and attempted to drive away. I stood in front to stop him. I hoped he would realise who I was. He saw me through the windscreen and hesitated. My brother tried to break the windows with his fists. We were all crying for him to stop.

He eventually got out of the car and walked off into the dark cold night. My wife went after him. We followed behind in a car. She managed to calm him and persuaded him to return to our house. He left with Mam early the next morning. When they got home, she called the doctor who diagnosed a complete mental breakdown and prescribed for him some strong sedatives. He said that they turned him into a zombie and after a few days he threw them away. He tried to deal with it in the only way he knew how. To tough it out. I now know we should have persuaded him to seek further help.

When I think back we should have recognised the symptoms. He had talked about problems at work. The stress had become too much for him culminating in the events of that night. In the following weeks he applied for early retirement on medical grounds and never worked again. I now mark his slow physical and mental decline from that night. Except for the occasional glimpse, the Dad I knew had gone forever, never to return.

He had a number of what were then called “nervous breakdowns” in his life. This is not surprising as he had experienced many things which would now be considered as triggers. He was raised in poverty in the Depression in the north east. His mam abandoned the family of 8 when he was young. His dad was unemployed for many years and often absent. Dad kept the family together and was the sole breadwinner. He was very intelligent but left school at 14 to find work.

Until he met Mam when he was 17, I don’t think he had ever experienced true love and affection. He loved her dearly and he found the long War separation very difficult. His eldest daughter was 3 when he was demobbed and she didn’t know him. After the War, he had many jobs and lived in many homes. He was always restless and could not settle. He was frustrated as he believed he had never reached his full potential. He felt life had held him back. He was a tremendously proud man and his pride was severely dented when we were homeless for 9 months in the 1960s.

He also drank. Not daily but heavily at weekends. This often triggered his deepest depressions and his bouts of anger. Sunday afternoons were very difficult when he often stormed out of the house and threatened to “jump in the cut”. I still hate Sundays. It was even worse at Christmas. I think it is the reason I remember so few of my childhood Christmases.

At the time we didn’t know what was happening. Dad was just in one of his moods. He was never physically abusive to any of us. But Mam and my older sisters bore the brunt of his mood swings. I can’t imagine what this must have been like for her. There were times when he was almost impossible to live with. His mood swings could be so severe that he was hospitalised at least twice when I was young. No one ever said why he went away, or whether it was voluntary, or if he had been sectioned. We now know he had a mental health condition. I am not sure what the diagnosis would be today. Perhaps some form of bipolar? We didn’t know then that he was ill and of course he would never admit to it. He would have regarded it as a weakness. I don’t think we ever really talked about it. Even after that night at my house.

There were tears in my eyes as I watched the programme on the TV. There were tears in all of our eyes as we watched Dad that night. This issue affects us all. My brother has a number of mental health problems including bipolar. I am not sure if they are linked to Dad. His campaigning on mental health has taught me that if these issues are ignored or left untreated, they can destroy lives and families. I am proud of the work he does on mental health in spite of his disability and illness. I am also grateful to Holby for raising awareness in such a powerful way and I thank my friend Aileen Bushbell for making it a key theme in her presidency of The CIH.

It is too late for Dad. It is not too late for my brother and millions like him. I have never written about this before. I had forgotten how painful it is to remember. I had forgotten how difficult it was to watch the man we all loved and admired disintegrate in front of our eyes. I regret hiding it away for so long. He will always be my Dad and I will always love him. Just as I know he always loved us. I wish now I had understood these issues more at that time and that we had done more to help him when he needed us most.

The nature of Stewardship.

As I was walking this morning, along the wild Atlantic coast of Donegal, I was thinking of my friend, walking companion, and ex chair, Richard Farnell, who died just over a year ago.

On this Housing Day I was thinking about the last time I saw him. He was angry that a housing association we had established had sent him an annual report which spent over 40 pages talking about finance and surplus with no mention of values and social purpose. Something we had always regarded as the golden thread of the organisations we worked for together. As his anger subsided we began to talk about stewardship and the nature of changing housing association leadership.

We agreed that as leaders we were merely stewards who for a short time had the privilege of working for organisations that could make a real difference to peoples’ lives. Our role was to take what we found and hopefully improve it and leave it in a better position. We were the keepers of the flame of social purpose. Our priority was to maintain and protect it and never allow it to die. A good steward would always do this. A poor steward might not.

Richard was clear that to ensure this, values and social purpose should be an essential criterion in any appointment process, especially when appointing new leaders. He was kind enough to say that this was the main reason he had appointed me to be the chief executive of two housing associations.

He smiled as he said this. I shall never forget that smile. I shall forget our final words. I shall never forget him. On housing day we need to ensure that all of our leaders make it their top priority to protect the very reason that housing association exist. To ensure that in everything they do they judge it by original values and social purpose. After all, as Richard often said, it is why we are here.

Making Way

I was first invited to join a housing association board in 1980. Within a few months I was invited to join another. The reason was simple. I was the regional officer for the National Federation of Housing Associations (now the National Housing Federation) and it was assumed I knew something about housing associations. In those days very few people did. I was 28.

I was not new to boards and committees. I had been secretary for the Inter Racial Solidarity Campaign and president of my students’ union in Leicester. I had also served on a number of trade union boards and committees. It was part of my life in those days. It still is.

Since then I have served on 8 housing association boards and chaired 2. I became what was known as a Statutory Appointee for the housing regulator. This meant that I was appointed to boards experiencing regulatory problems. Since retiring from the role of chief executive I have sat on 3 more HA boards as well as undertaking other non-executive and trustee roles. The 3 HAs were all in regulatory supervision. On each occasion I was asked to join because of my previous experience. My average stay has been 2 years as I always move on when the issues are resolved.

It is against this background that I say that when I retired I decided not to apply to be a normal board member of a housing association. I was busy being chair of HACT at the time and also chair of Emmaus. But this was not the reason for my decision. I believe that too many ex chief executives and executives join boards and become chairs almost by default when they retire. I have often wondered if this is a good thing and if they have thought seriously about the difference in roles before doing so. Just because you have been a chief executive does not mean that you will become a good board member or chair. The skills required for one are not necessarily the skills required for the other. I believe also that we have a duty to make way for younger talent as I said here some years ago.

The best chair I ever worked with had never been a chief executive and had no desire to be so. This meant that he had no interest in doing my job and at the time I had no interest in doing his. This is vital. Understanding the differences in the two roles and having clear lines of responsibility are essential to a successful chair and chief executive relationship. I have seen too many chief executives trying to do the chief executive’s job, when they become chairs. (Just as I have seen chief executives trying to do the chair’s job, but that’s another story) This often entails becoming too involved in the operational side of the business and blurring lines of responsibility and control. Of course if things go wrong this might be necessary, but not in normal circumstances. Strategy, vision, values, and challenge and support through the board are the chair’s main functions not day to day operational leadership. As an old coach of mine often said, “good chairs rarely venture onto the dance floor. They stay on the balcony.”

This strategic view is one of the essential qualities of a good board member, along with a commitment to the values of an organisation, and the ability to monitor, challenge, and support performance. In my view diversity is also an essential component of a high performing board. This means that chairs should be ensuring the appointment of a diverse range of people including younger board members as well as the more mature. We should make spaces on boards to appoint younger people. Just as we did when I was young. My question to ex chief executives and executives is, why do you want to become HA board members? Perhaps you should resist the temptation and do something else, and create more opportunities for younger people.