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.

Walking Into The Sunset

As I approach my 65th Birthday I have been thinking about the next stage of my life.

Walking Into The Sunset.

It is London Marathon time again and my Twitter lifeline is full of brave women and men who will be running it for the first time. I wish them well. I ran my first London Marathon in 1983, the year our son Kieran was born. I dedicated the race to him. I ran regularly for the next 15 years until my body could take no more. A combination of a trapped sciatic nerve and knee problems forced me to stop. So I began walking instead.

I have always looked for new challenges in my life. Five years ago on 13th April I gave up my Chief Executive’s role at Midland Heart, to make way for the next generation. At the time I wondered how I would adapt to my new life. I knew I would spend more time walking but I did not know what else I would do. As I reflect on those five years I can honestly say I have enjoyed every minute. I have chaired and served as a trustee and board member on a number of great organizations. I have entered the world of social media. I have begun blogging. I have also rediscovered my campaigning voice with SHOUT and other groups.

I have always campaigned even though my housing career sometimes limited this activity. I am now free once again to voice my concerns about all that is wrong in 21st Century Britain. Sadly many of the issues that exist today are the same as those I encountered when I began my career over 40 years ago. Poverty and inequality have increased in recent years. Nowhere is this more apparent than in housing. I began my housing career hoping that one day we would overcome these two evils and that everyone would be able to live in a decent secure home at a price they could genuinely afford. We are further away from that dream now than at any other time I can remember.

This is the reason I have spent most of the last five years challenging the austerity measures and benefit cuts which have increased poverty and inequality. This is why I have criticized the lack of investment in social housing which has exacerbated the housing crisis. I have often felt a lone voice in this crusade as many in the housing sector seem intent on delivering the government’s agenda, at whatever the cost. An agenda that, despite some recent minor adjustments, will do nothing to provide homes for those I believe should be at the heart of our work.

There seems to be a growing mantra which says we must continue to build almost anything as we are freed from regulatory burden. Some go even further. Give us control of rents and lettings and we will deliver the solution to the housing crisis. I find this increasingly difficult to accept. Only in very special circumstances will this strategy help those in the greatest housing need, e.g.  The L&Q partnership in London. For the majority of housing associations it will mean building more homes for ownership, market rent and so called affordable rent which will do nothing for those struggling to find a decent home at a price they can truly afford. If this is the future for housing associations, maybe it is time for me to pursue my interests elsewhere. I have said before I did not join the social housing world to become an estate agent or a developer or to deliver a right wing government’s housing strategy.

I have always thought that paths are for people who don’t know where they are going. I am now seeking to open up new paths as I approach my 65th year. I do not know where I will finish up. I fear I will journey further from the housing association world as it moves away from its original roots and social purpose. I wish it well. I’m sure it will provide homes for many people and that it will thrive and prosper in its own way. I would rather devote the next stage of my career working to help those suffering the most in Austerity Britain.

I have enjoyed working recently with the makers of a documentary called Dispossession. The film looks at the causes of the housing crisis from a radical viewpoint. Some of the established figures in housing will find it uncomfortable viewing. I hope that they do. It is a passionate film made by angry young people. Of course it is not perfectly balanced. It has a story to tell and uses strong images to get its message across. We need more people to challenge our thinking like the makers of the film. It is good that some young people still get angry about such things and want to do something about it. They remind me of the people I worked with 40 years ago when social housing was still young. I have found it hugely refreshing working with such people again.

As I seek new ventures, I will continue to walk. Sharing the pleasure with my wife Vishva. I expect to have less contact with the mainstream housing world as our paths diverge. I will concentrate on working with those at the sharp end of the housing crisis. I will end my career where it began. However If there is ever a need to remind people of the real values of social housing or if there is a call for an old campaigner to speak out, you know where to find me. I will be striding into the great unknown, exploring new routes and new horizons, in the early evening light. Walking into the sunset.

 

 

A Not So Happy New Year

As I read the many housing predictions for 2017 over the Christmas period, I began to wonder if I live in a different world to some housing leaders.

They were full of self-congratulatory optimism about the future of housing associations.

Despite overwhelming evidence that poor people are getting poorer and that a major cause of this is housing costs, the New Year housing reviews were Panglossian.

You would be forgiven for believing that we “have never had it so good”, to use a phrase from another era. Apparently the government has listened to our message and will support us in owning our future

We will be given flexibility and control of rents, which will allow us to solve the housing crisis by building more and more homes – except, of course, for those in the greatest housing need.

Ownership is still the main government mantra as they seek to provide homes for people in their own image and not for poor people and those who need social rent housing.

I began to write more than five years ago about the slow death of social housing. I have seen nothing in the past 12 months that changes my view. The net loss of social rent homes continues and social lettings are down.

The false dawn before Christmas seems to be nothing more than a minor move away from the ownership obsession with a little more flexibility around so-called affordable rent.

The mayor of London seems to understand the importance of social rent housing but this is not reflected in funding for other parts of the country.

With all the best will in the world, the answer to the housing crisis does not lie in China or India or in mega housing associations using their assets.

It lies in a major increase in government investment, especially to fund social rent housing for those on low/no incomes.

I realise, of course, that many will disagree with this message. I am also aware that I am living in a different housing world, as I spend most of my time working as a trustee and, until recently, a chair of charities that work with homeless and formerly homeless people.

I am also involved in campaigns with people not directly linked to housing. In this world the perception of some housing associations is not so glowing. They are seen as large organisations that have lost touch with their communities.

Many are seen to be moving away from their social purpose as they blindly follow the government agenda. It is recognised that this does not apply to all but it is reflected in the leadership of some.

A recent blog by a well-known housing commentator showed how in one association, decisions were taken at the highest level to move away from social housing.

As I have argued before, the move is not accidental.

Some housing associations have been complicit in helping to form government policy that ignores those in greatest need.

With each government announcement and each response from our leaders, housing associations are seen by those on the outside to move a bit further from their original values and social purpose. Change never happens in one leap.

It is incremental and often not perceived by those involved. Just as the toad in the slowly heating pan does not recognise the danger of boiling water, some housing associations do not realise how far they have moved in recent years.

If they stood outside the pan, as I have in my new roles, they would see that it is reaching boiling point. The values which once dominated the sector are slowly dying.

The best leaders step outside of their organisations to get a true perspective of how they are seen. They ask people who give uncomfortable answers. My challenge for housing association leaders in 2017 is to do this before it is too late.

The only certainty in 2017 is that those we were set up to help will suffer more from a perfect storm of ever increasing rents and draconian cuts and caps to all forms of benefits.

Maybe for some associations this is no longer their problem as they produce the homes the government want, to house the people it has always favoured.

I hope this is not true of all and that some will recognise in their New Year optimism that we are still failing so many of the most excluded in our society. For them the prospects for 2017 are very bleak indeed.

This article appeared recently on Inside Housing under a different title

Not Just a Christmas Tale

There is always more media coverage of homelessness at this time of year. Partly because homelessness relates to the Christmas story and partly because of the extra hardship of living rough in the winter months. Already there have been reports of at least three people who have died while sleeping out. There has been more coverage this year because there are more homeless people and they are becoming more visible. This is a direct result of the housing crisis and the multiple effect of various government policies and the deep-rooted inequality and poverty in our society.

It is good to see the profile raised but we should remember that homelessness is not seasonal. It affects people every day of the year and it is getting worse.
That is why when I am not ranting about the demise of social housing, I spend some of my time working with great people who provide accommodation and support to people who have been homeless. I work with two charities that realise providing a warm and safe environment to live in is only part of the solution to homelessness. They understand that simply putting someone who doesn’t have a ‘home’ into a ‘house’ doesn’t solve their problems. They both attempt to provide more: a home, a sense of belonging, and self-belief.

I am just about to stand down as chair of Emmaus in Leicestershire and Rutland. Emmaus has existed in Europe and the UK for many years. It provides homeless people with a home in a community, and employment and support in various social enterprises. This combination of individual and community support has seen great achievements. Many companions who have experienced living in an Emmaus community move on to lead very successful lives. A unique feature of Emmaus is that each community seeks to be self-sufficient and reduce its dependency on benefits and other funding through the development of social enterprises. This work has become even more important in the current financial climate.

I have recently become a trustee of another charity working with homeless people. The Mayday Trust has also existed for a number of years and until recently provided traditional accommodation and support. It has now transformed its operational model following extensive research and feedback from the people who use its services.
It works with people going through the toughest of life transitions – often those leaving prison or care. It assists individuals to identify their own strengths and goals which they ultimately use to overcome any personal or institutional barriers. Its coaching methods are innovative in the sector and are producing remarkable results. It is now seeking to expand this work to meet the ever-growing need.

Both of these charities are great examples of organisations that are adapting and changing to provide solutions to address the issues faced by some of the most marginalised people in our society. They seek to create homes – “homes which are rooted in human connection and purpose, which have foundations and safety nets which are not services, but which provide friends, families and jobs”, as a colleague said recently. Both work in different ways and reflect the fact that there is no simple, single solution to the devastating increase in homelessness.

What the organisations have in common is that they are staffed by extraordinary employees and volunteers who go the extra mile to provide support for those who are bearing the brunt of the housing crisis. They are my housing heroes for 2016 as, sadly, the need for their work increases. If, like me, you are shocked and angry that 50 years after Cathy Come Home there is still a crisis, why not seek out your local homeless charity and see what you can do to help? The time for action is now, not just because it is nearly Christmas but because help and support are required every day of the year.

This article originally appeared in Inside Housing