The ultimate sacrifice 

My blog for UK Housing Fast.

#UKHousingFast

By Tom Murtha

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

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

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

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The Poppy Road. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Careful What You Wish For. 

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

Sunday Memories.

The Sundays of my childhood were very different from today. The day of rest was observed much more strictly. There were no shops, very little television and only the radio for entertainment. For a child it was very boring as even playing out was restricted. Sunday was the only day that we spent time together as a family and like a weekly mini Christmas this created some wonderful shared moments and some less happy ones.

We would rise early to dress in our best clothes to attend Mass. Breakfast came later as we could not eat before taking communion. Once the service had finished we would return home for a fry up cooked by my Dad. It was the only meal he cooked during the week. It was always a little burnt but it tasted wonderful, especially after an overnight fast.

At 12 sharp Dad would be off to the pub to return at 1.30 when we would have dinner. The only time that we sat down to eat together as a family. Six of us when I was young and less as I got older. This was always a worrying time. If Dad had returned in a good mood, we could relax and enjoy the rest of the day. If anything had upset him, there would inevitably be a row which often led to him storming out saying that he was going to throw himself into the cut. I didn’t know at the time but Dad suffered from depression and mental health issues, though he would never admit it. He had at least two major breakdowns in his life and maybe more.

My family walking in the cemetery. My sister, Pat, Mam, my brother, Andrew, my sister, Colleen, me, and a neighbour’s daughter.

If the mood was good we would often visit my Mam’s family grave during the afternoon. When we lived in our first council house this meant a walk to the cemetery on Groby Road. In later years we travelled by bus. Upstairs so that my Dad and occasionally my Mam could smoke.

There was a long entrance drive in the cemetery which led to the Crematorium. I was always slightly frightened as we approached it, looking for the telltale smoke from the chimney. I did not realise that there were no cremations on a Sunday. To the left of the crematorium was a smaller path which led to my Mam’s family grave. Mam’s maiden name was Poulton and there were one or two Poultons buried in the grave. The majority of people buried there were Crowsons, the maiden name of my Grandmother.

I never knew Mam’s parents. My Granddad died in 1942 in an industrial accident on the railways. This allowed my parents to marry as he had opposed their wedding. Mam was a Protestant and Dad an Irish Catholic and mixed marriages were not encouraged. My wife, Vishva and I faced similar opposition when we married many years later. My Grandmother died in 1956 when I was 4. I have no memory of her. Her death allowed Mam to convert to Catholicism and my parents were married again in a Catholic Church in the same year. In the eyes of the Church, I and the rest of my family became legitimate.

There was one name on the family headstone that always fascinated me as a child. My Mam’s uncle, Henry Crowson. The inscription simply said he was buried somewhere in France in 1917. When I talked to Mam about it, she said that no one knew where he was buried. All they knew was that he had been killed on The Somme in 1917. My Mam went to her grave not knowing where.

I still visit the cemetery. Sadly, now on my own as most of my family have died. I go to see my Mam and Dad, to tidy up their grave and chat. Their grave is on the far side of the cemetery beyond the crematorium and some distance from Mam’s family grave. A few year ago I decided to find the family grave. I retraced our childhood walk and eventually found it in a semi abandoned area. The grave surroundings have gone but the headstones remain. Smaller than I remembered and tilting at an angle. I traced the names of each family member, trying to remember their relationship to me. There at the foot of the headstone was my great uncle’s name, buried somewhere in France.

It was at that moment I decided to find out more. I sat at the graveside and within minutes I had found him on my I Phone. I knew he was in The Leicestershire Regiment, I knew his full name and I knew when he died. Typing in those details revealed where he was buried. He lies in a Commonwealth War Grave in a village called Rousel just east of Peronne. I have the grave number and the original details of his burial. In a few minutes I was able to discover what none of Mam’s family ever knew.

Next week I am travelling to France with Vishva to visit his grave. As far as I know I will be the first relative to do so. It is appropriate to go now as he died exactly 100 years ago. We will visit on a Sunday. As I approach his grave I will remember those childhood walks to the cemetery when my family was still with us. I will remember them all. My sisters, Pat and Colleen who died much too young. My brother, Andrew who is disabled and suffers from mental health issues. I will remember my Dad’s troubled Sundays and his struggles with depression, which he never acknowledged. I will remember my Mam who never knew where her uncle was buried, just as she never knew where her oldest son, who died at birth, was laid to rest.  And I will remember an uncle who went off to a foreign land to fight and die for his country in the war that should have ended all wars and didn’t. There is no glory in war that is the “old lie”. But there are memories and I will remember him, William Henry Crowson. May he rest in peace.

A United Voice

 

My most recent blog proved to be one of my most viewed and commented upon. I know that boxing is a controversial subject but I suspect that it was my call to unify housing awards that stimulated the interest and debate. I was pleased to see that many supported the proposal. Of course most people recognised the need to celebrate collective and individual success but many felt it could be done in a better and cheaper way. Especially as a housing award in currently advertising a table for 10 at £3000. Some argued for the retention of specialist awards and I support this. In the current climate there is a place for tenant awards and for those recognising the contribution of women.

One of the most interesting and perhaps the most controversial comment was from a housing chief executive who suggested that we go even further and merge all of the trade and professional bodies representing social housing in England. This was music to my ears. It is something that I proposed some years ago. I think the arguments for it are stronger now than ever.

There are a number of trade and professional bodies in the social housing sector and they all claim to represent a specific interest group. I have been involved in many of them in my career.  There was recently a call for them to present a united housing manifesto for the general election similar to the “Homes for Britain” campaign.

However, if you study the individual manifestos from our housing bodies you will see some differences. Most recognise that government intervention and investment in social housing is required and call for it to be made via local authorities and housing associations. All of the parties seem to be responding positively to this. Strangely, the only one that doesn’t mention this appears to be The National Housing Federation which calls for the deregulation of housing associations to allow them to solve the housing crisis. Some would argue that the proposal to allow housing associations to set their own rents to fund new development is wrong and potentially dangerous. It is interesting to note that one of the Conservative proposals in the general election campaign is to cap prices in utilities that have only increased since they were deregulated and privatised some years ago.

It is possible to explain these differences by the makeup of our trade and professional bodies. The Chartered Institute of Housing and National Federation of Almos for example are made up of housing professionals who are often front line staff and in the case of the NFA many tenants. These people understand the extent of the housing crisis and the way it impacts tenants and residents. The NHF is dominated by large housing associations and their leaders some of whom see their main role as promoting their organisations and not the people they were set up to serve.

So how would it benefit the housing sector if our trade and professional bodies merged? The normal case for a merger applies. A united trade and professional body would be more efficient and cheaper to run. Where there is now duplication in research, promotion, lobbying and other back office functions there would only be a need for one of each, bringing together the best talent from existing organisations. There would only be one leader instead of many. And most importantly of all a united trade body could speak with one voice. A voice that would hopefully recognise the needs of the whole housing sector and its tenants.

I am sure many will say that this is a step too far and that we need to recognise the different roles that each individual body plays. Some will say that, even if it desirable, it would be too difficult to achieve. These arguments were once made about housing association mergers which are now commonplace. Other sectors have only one trade body. What is so special about social housing that it need more?

I have been involved in many mergers in the past and once brought together 13 separate organisations into one. The main key to success is recognising the true values of the existing organisations and ensuring this golden thread continues into the new body. Another is to ignore the egos of those involved. I know this might be difficult with some of our existing housing leaders. However, if we can do this anything is possible. And you never know we might finish up with a united trade and professional body that is proud to talk about and promote social housing again both to the sector itself and the wider world.

 

An Award Ceremony Too Far 

I come from a boxing family. Dad was a good amateur boxer who occasionally fought for money to put food on the table during the Depression on Tyneside. His career was curtailed by the war and he lost most of his medals during the Blitz on Bootle. In his later life he became a trainer for a boxing club in Leicester. It was here where I learned the rudiments of the fight game, not always with much success.

Some of my earliest memories are of being woken by Dad in the middle of the night to hear the latest fight from America on an old wireless. I heard live the first Ali verses Liston fight when the young boxer from Louisville shocked the world by defeating the ageing Liston to become the undisputed Heavyweight Champion. As I Listened to the recent Joshua fight I was thinking of that night with Dad.

As he grew older Dad became disillusioned with boxing. He thought that the proliferation of titles for commercial gain diluted the quality of champions. It became almost impossible to name one as there were often so many. In Dad’s view many of the champions were not worthy of the title. Where once he could name the fighter who dominated his division, like Ali in the 1960s, Marciano in the 1950s, Louis in the 1930s and 1940s, each weight had so many champions, he could no longer do so. Very few became household names. Today Anthony Joshua is being called a unified champion but as far as I can tell he holds 2 or maybe 3 of the many heavyweight belts. Do you know who holds the others?

Before the fight I was involved in a twitter exchange on housing award ceremonies. Some people feel that there are too many. Some are angry at the amount of money spent on them when more of our tenants and would be tenants are struggling under the impact of Austerity Britain. The counter argument is that we should celebrate success and that awards recognise learning and development and provide an opportunity to share good practice.

In the past the organisations I have worked for have won a number of awards and they have sponsored them. I recognise that they have a value, especially for those involved. I will never forget one ceremony where we won an award for our extra care work. Afterwards a scheme manager, who was a strong trade unionist, told me that it was one the best moments in her life. 

However, I believe that it is time to consider whether there are now too many award ceremonies in the housing sector. They fuel the argument that housing associations are profligate with tenants’ money. As in boxing there are now so many awards that they have become meaningless to all but a few inside the housing bubble. I won’t comment if the sheer number has also led to a reduction in quality. As in boxing they have increased for mainly commercial reasons. Bums on seats at the award ceremony table just as at ringside is the name of the game. 

Maybe it is time for all the award giving bodies to come together and agree to hold just one national housing award ceremony per year. A unified housing award would really be something to strive for. At the same time the more extravagant trappings could be removed. Do we really need an expensive dinner and black tie to recognise outstanding achievement or even to encourage learning? If we adopted this idea the name of each annual award winner would be known to everyone in the sector and even beyond. Just like the unified heavyweight crown an annual award would be worth winning. And perhaps in future years people might even remember that you had won it.

For Our Children

When I was 15 I lived in a council house on Goodwood Estate in Leicester. There I dreamed that one day I would live in an old house, by the side of a river, in the middle of nowhere. Now, 50 years later I live in such a place. It is in a hamlet called Spernall. It is so small that my Dad would have said, “if you blink you will miss it” It is one of “The Lost villages of England” which Beresford wrote about in the 1950s. The records say that the village was abandoned after a “pestilence” in the Middle Ages. The later Enclosures and the decline of gypsum quarrying were also factors in its demise. Today it is just a group of farm buildings with an abandoned church.

It is only famous by association. It is home to the Purity craft brewery, makers of the delightful Ubu, Mad Goose, and Bunny Hop. It borders the Coughton Court Estate, now owned by The National Trust. This was a stronghold of Catholicism in the 15th and 16th Century. It played a role in the Gunpowder Plot, when an oppressed and excluded minority tried to overthrow the King and the Government by blowing up the The House of Lords. “The only people to enter Parliament with good intentions” as my more radical friends would say.

Spernall is also the site of The Heart of England Forest. The vision of Felix Dennis who in his later life became known as “the planter of trees.” For those of you who remember the 1960s, Felix was once famous for something else. He was one of the three defendants in the Oz Trial. This was a cause celebre of its day, pitting the various elements of the underground movement against the might of the establishment. Oz was a magazine at the centre of a counter culture which brought together music, art and politics in a challenge to what was then seen as the forces of reaction. This challenge reached its peak in 1968, the year of student revolt in Europe and America. Ironically Felix went on to make his fortune in publishing as part of the establishment in the United States. A fortune which he eventually invested in planting a forest on my doorstep

Part of his dream was that the forest would be open to all. However on my walks recently I have noticed that the high fences that surround it to prevent deer from damaging the young trees are being made more secure to prevent access by people. Part of the enclosures are now restricted to the wealthy few who can afford to pay for the shooting rights. I see it as part of my duty to continue to walk the forest to open up the restricted areas just as the militant ramblers did in the 1930s when they “trespassed” in the Peak District.

During my walks I reflect that a similar thing is happening in social housing. In the post war years, social housing and council housing was created to provide homes for all. In recent years people on very low incomes have found it increasingly difficult to access these homes. They are being excluded and priced out of a tenure that had once provided them with a lifeline.

In the immediate aftermath of the war there was also a housing shortage. This gave rise to a squatting campaign to open up homes that were often owned by rich people and organisations. Many of the squatters had also taken part in the campaigns to open up the countryside. The shortage of homes and the subsequent outcry led to the housing boom of the 1950s when both governments recognised the benefits of investing in social housing for all.

History is full of examples of excluded people taking action. I believe that those who are excluded now from social housing and are suffering the worst effects of austerity will begin to take action and eventually the government will be forced to change its policies as it has done in the past.

Nothing is certain in life. But I fear that I will not live long enough to see the Heart of England Forest grow to full maturity. We plant tress for our children and our children’s children to enjoy. I hope by then they will have full access to its beauty. I believe that I will live long enough to see a time when social housing is again accessible to all. That is something all of our children should be able to enjoy in future whatever their status. I think it is something that is still worth fighting for. I hope you do too.