A gentle giant.

083C8A5A-3D1A-411D-B464-EA8FBBC83383My housing obituary for Richard Farnell based on my tribute to him which is also on WordPress.

 

“Richard Farnell, who died on 23rd September 2018 probably did more for social housing over the last 30 years than anyone I know. Until recently he served as a non-executive and Chair on many boards with no reward except knowing that he was helping to provide one of our basic human needs, a decent home at a price that people could genuinely afford. He was one of the unsung heroes of social housing who are the real keepers of our social purpose and values. His passion for social housing was second to none.

Richard was a man of many titles. He was a Canon Theologian of Coventry Cathedral. He was also Chair of the Cathedral Council. He was the Emeritus Professor of Neighborhood Regeneration at Coventry University, where he taught urban studies and town planning for many years. He has served on many national and local committees. He was also the ex-Chair of Touchstone and Keynote, the founding Chair of Midland Heart and the first Chair of The Extra Care Charitable Trust.

During his stewardship at Touchstone Richard led one of the most innovatory housing associations in the UK. They pioneered ideas and projects that are still seen as ground breaking in social housing today. As Chair of Keynote he led what was to become one of the major inner city regeneration associations in the country. He led the merger of Keynote and Prime Focus to form Midland Heart, one of the largest and most successful housing and care organisations in the sector. All of these associations bore the imprint of his social values and purpose. He was by nature a quiet man, characterised by integrity and humility, qualities that are essential for true leadership. His passion for social justice was derived from his deep Christian faith.

I was proud to work with him as Chief Executive of Keynote and as Chief Operating Officer and eventually Chief Executive of Midland Heart. I can honestly say he was the best Chair I have worked with in social housing. I learned so much from him. He provided the support and direction that all leaders need to help them through the good times and the bad. All in social housing owe him so much. Literally thousands of people are living better lives in the Midlands and elsewhere because of his work.”

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A Gentle Giant

083C8A5A-3D1A-411D-B464-EA8FBBC83383I wrote this for Richard so that he knew how much he meant to me and others. He died of on 23rd September, 2018. Words cannot express my sadness at his passing. I leave this here now as a tribute to his life and as a memory of our friendship.

I  have been reflecting recently that we often only tell people what we feel about them at their funeral in the form of an eulogy, when some would say it is too late. Surely it is better to say what we feel when they are still alive. For this reason I have decided to write a tribute to one of my closest friends while he can still read it. I was shocked and saddened to hear recently that oncologists have told him that he has only months to live. A melanoma that started on his heel some years ago has spread to most of his organs. He is now too weak to undergo treatment and he is receiving wonderful care and support from the NHS and his family and friends at home. His mind is as sharp as ever but his body is failing. He celebrated his 71st birthday on 31st August.

His name is Richard Farnell. Most of you will not have heard of him. But he has probably done more for social housing over the last 30 years than anyone I know. Until recently he served as a non-executive and chair on many boards with no reward except knowing that he was helping to provide one of our basic human needs, a decent home at a price that people could genuinely afford. He is one of the unsung heroes of social housing who are the real keepers of our social purpose and values. His passion for social housing is second to none.

He is a man of many titles. But you would not know it. We used to joke about them.  He is a Canon Theologian of Coventry Cathedral. He was also Chair of the Cathedral Council. He is the Emeritus Professor of Neighborhood Regeneration at Coventry University, where he taught urban studies and town planning for many years. He has served on many national and local committees. I know him best as the ex-Chair of Touchstone, Keynote, Midland Heart and The Extra Care Charitable Trust.

During his stewardship at Touchstone he led one of the most innovatory housing associations in the UK. They pioneered ideas and projects that are still seen as ground breaking in social housing today. As Chair of Keynote he led what was to become one of the major inner city regeneration associations in the country. He led the merger of Keynote and Prime Focus to form Midland Heart, one of the largest and most successful housing and care organisations in the country. All of these associations bore the imprint of his social values and purpose. He is by nature a quiet man, characterised by integrity and humility, qualities that are essential for true leadership. His passion for social justice is derived from his deep Christian faith.

I was proud to work with him as Chief Executive of Keynote and as Chief Operating Officer and eventually Chief Executive of Midland Heart. I can honestly say he is the best Chair I have worked with in social housing and I have worked with some of the best. I learned so much from him and I am still learning to this day. He provided the support and direction that all leaders need to help them through the good times and the bad. I owe him so much. I hope that he knows how much he means to me and all those who have had the privilege of knowing him and working with him. Literally thousands of people are living better lives in the Midlands and elsewhere because of his work.

I am also proud to call him a friend. Our friendship grew out of our working relationship and has blossomed in recent years. Since our mutual retirements we have met regularly to walk along the canal at Hatton, finishing with a pint of our favorite Purity Ale and a sandwich at the local pub. Those walks have been some of the happiest times I have spent in recent years. As we walked we talked. Or to be more correct I talked and Richard listened. He is a great listener which is why he is such a wonderful chair, leader and friend. When he spoke they were words of wisdom. Ten words from Richard were worth a thousand of mine.

I shall miss our walks. I shall miss our talks. But most of all I shall miss a true friend. His words shaping my own thoughts and sometimes calming my anger and frustration at the growing levels of poverty and inequality in the UK and the demise of real social housing. After a rant from me he would smile and quietly respond. I always drove home from our walks feeling a better person. Richard has that effect upon people. He makes people feel better. He has a strong faith but does not impose it on others. He would often share his beliefs with me, gently nudging me to reconsider my own faith or lack of it. Like everything he did, he did it with the gentlest of touch. That is what makes him the person he is. A true gentleman in every sense of the word.

I tire sometimes at the overuse of the word legend in our media and elsewhere. Richard would never contemplate the thought but to me he is a true legend. He has done so much to change my life and that of many others. If I have achieved anything in recent years, it is because I have been able to stand upon the shoulders of this giant of a man. A man devoted to his family his faith and his friends. If he passes he will be missed by all.

Whatever happens, I shall continue to walk along the canal. I know he will always be with me; always listening, always encouraging, always giving wise council, and above all always smiling. As they say in Liverpool, I love the very bones of the man. I still can’t believe that he might soon be leaving us. If he does the world will have lost one of the best. He is one of the kindest and gentlest people I have ever known. He is and forever will be, that rarest of things in life and in death, a true friend. A true Anam Cara

 

 

 

 

Restless Farewell.

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Since my appearance on Dispatches I have been thinking about my future. Like many I was disappointed with the programme and I agreed to do a podcast for Inside Housing to set the record straight. I was not unduly concerned about the personal comments and criticisms from the housing sector. I have a thick skin and I expected some negative feedback. What worried me was the sector’s inability to address the issues mentioned in the programme. Yes it was unbalanced, but it raised important questions that echo those discussed in two recent commissions on the future of social housing. These show that HAs need to rebuild trust by working more closely with tenants, communities and other stakeholders, to overcome the perception that some have moved away from their social purpose. Something that even 60% of HA staff think is happening according to the Guardian . It is my view that if we continue to fail to debate these issues openly and with a wider public we will fail to resolve them. And those who do great work in our sector including many in Placeshapers and elsewhere will be seen as guilty by association.

For some years I have been critical of the government’s housing policy and have challenged the sector’s response to it. I helped to establish SHOUT with Alison Inman and others because many in the sector were silent on these issues and on the demonisation of social housing and its tenants. I am pleased to see that many of the points we raised, to much criticism at the time, are now being championed by our leaders. Perhaps, if they had championed them 8 years ago we would be nearer to solving the housing crisis and to preventing the rise in homelessness, inequality and poverty. However it would be churlish of me not to welcome the epiphany that some have undergone. Just as I welcome that some HAs have written recently of the need to rebuild trust by reverting back to their social purpose. I hope that they turn their words into action.

As some in the sector have begun to realise the need to change, I have been thinking where I concentrate my efforts in future. I have known throughout my career that there is always a time to move on from whatever you are doing. I have done this on a number of occasions. I am beginning to feel that it is now time to move on from being a “housing campaigner and commentator” before I overstay my welcome. If it is not already too late!

I will start this process with the NHF National Conference. I have attended every Conference since my first in 1979. During the 1980s I helped arrange them when I worked for the NHF. This year would have been my 40th. The Conference was once the highlight of the social housing year where people came together to debate openly and sometimes fiercely the issues of the day. I always left feeling refreshed, full of ideas, with my sense of social purpose burning even more brightly. I no longer feel this. I have left recent Conferences feeling despondent and depressed. The Conference has become a shadow of its former self. The title has been changed to remove any reference to social housing which some thought “got in the way.” This is reflected in the agenda which is tightly controlled with little opportunity for real debate. In recent years I have attended a number of plenary sessions where no questions were taken from the floor. Nowhere was this more apparent than when the sector was asked to blindly support the extension of the right to buy to housing associations to appease a contrary government.

I note with a little pride that the most exciting events at the conference now take place on the fringe. These were introduced by HACT to much controversy during my time as chair. They are now an essential part of any conference. I take no credit for this. That goes to the chief executive and deputy chief executive of HACT at the time

This year the Conference has changed its name again to the National Housing Summit and has moved to London in order “to attract the best speakers.” I have decided not to follow it. I will declare at 39 not out. I suspect I will not be missed. I hope that some who attend will continue to challenge; to remind HAs of their reason for existence, of their social purpose, of the need to put tenants at the heart of their decision-making and much more. I am sad that I will miss meeting up with some good friends and colleagues. I am sad that I will miss the new NHF chief executive. I hope she follows the example of other women housing leaders at the CIH, Shelter and elsewhere. They have transformed their organisations to reconnect with their roots and to rediscover their campaigning zeal. If that happens I will be more than happy to observe from afar.

It looks as though Dispatches and the podcast might be my swan song to the housing sector and to this period of my life. If I had a choice I would rather it be my Lifetime Achievement Award, or my speech at the TPAS Conference in July, or the one I will make to TPAS Cymru in November. I hope that these show that I always tried to speak “truth to power” to seek justice for those we were set up to help. This was my only motivation in all that I have said and done in recent years and before.

I now have other things to do working with The Mayday Trust and North Wales Housing. Back to the frontline of social housing. Back to where it all began. Back to where my housing soul lies. As I begin to move on, I would like to thank those who have supported me over the last few years. You gave me comfort when times seemed bleak. You gave me strength when I was attacked for my views. You gave me joy to know I was not alone. I will leave you with a bit of Dylan, who I have often turned to at important times in my life. It sums up how I feel as I make this restless farewell.

But if the arrow is straight

And the point is slick

It can pierce through dust no matter how thick

So I’ll make my stand

And remain as I am

And bid farewell and not give a damn.

Zero Tolerance

“I am fearful that we will repeat the failure of previous initiatives going back 40 years – unless we address the problem within.” I wrote this in an article for Inside Housing in January.

The “problem within” I was referring to was racism and discrimination in housing. I was criticised at the time and told that I was upsetting sector leaders as the claim was untrue. Now, thanks to the excellent work of Jess McCabe and Inside Housing, we know that racism, sexism and discrimination does exist in housing with “problems reported across all forms of discrimination covered in the Equalities Act 2010”, and beyond.

I am not surprised by the findings in the report. I have witnessed and dealt with numerous incidents in my career.

Both as a chief executive and as a chair, I have disciplined and dismissed a number of senior managers for racist and sexist behaviour.

I have campaigned against all forms of discrimination since the 1970s. In recent years, my claims that it still exists in the housing sector have been largely ignored.

I believe that for some time the sector has been at best complacent about the issue and at worst in denial.

Now there is clear evidence that discrimination exists, which is both structural and personal. How else do you explain the shameful lack of BME leaders in our sector?

The issues are directly linked, as the editor of Inside Housing said in a recent editorial.

How do we begin to overcome it? There are no easy answers as discrimination exists throughout society. I no longer believe that we can change people’s views, but we can change how they act in the workplace.

We must openly accept that there is an issue and that discrimination exists in our organisations.

For far too long we have been afraid to meet this head on. We have used phrases like subconscious bias as a camouflage for deeper issues.

At a recent diversity conference, I challenged the audience to define where subconscious bias ends and racism and sexism begins?

We must ask all of our leaders to sign up to eradicate discrimination in all of its forms and to report fully and openly on it. I have always believed that the involvement of an independent body to enforce this is required.

In my view, the only time the housing sector took the issue seriously and made real progress was when the regulator and the audit commission was involved.

Here are five things the sector should do to help tackle the problem:

1. We must make it clear in all of our organisations that we have an inclusive culture and that anyone who acts in a way contrary to these values will be disciplined or dismissed. I believe that organisations should have a zero tolerance approach with policies in place to enforce this.

2. Netflix recently dismissed its chief communications officer after reports that he had used a racially offensive word. We should have similar policies in place and enforce them.

3. We should introduce independent and anonymous whistleblowing policies. Independent because research has shown that in many organisations people are uneasy about using internal structures for fear of reprisal and because perpetrators are often line managers or senior staff. People have to trust whistleblowing procedures. They will only do this if they are seen to be effective and appropriate action is taken.

4. We should ask our boards to hold the chief executive to account for successfully delivering a truly inclusive and non-discriminatory environment. This should be a major priority and part of performance regular reviews at all levels in our organisations.

5. Training and development will continue to have a role to play. But we have had many internal and external training programmes in my career. Action is required to back up training and development.

These actions are not new, we first began talking about them 40 years ago. The sector has ignored the issue for too long.

This report should be a wake-up call for real action. Just because we claim to have a social purpose and strong values, it does not make us immune to an evil that effects all society and is growing in our post-Brexit world.

Unless we take strong action now, discrimination in housing will be exist in another 40 years. Is that the legacy those who work in housing today want to leave to the next generation?

This article originally appeared in Inside Housing.

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.