“Council housing rescued us when we were homeless”

Tom Murtha, now retired, was very prominent in the housing association sector. We interview him about his experience and the current situation, with an increasing trend towards commercialisation.

You spent many years working for housing associations. Could you tell us what you did and why you decided to work in that field?

I was born and raised on a council estate in Leicester. One of the first to be built by the Labour Government in the post war council house building boom. Something we need to emulate today.

In 1965 my family became homeless. For nine months we sofa surfed around Leicester, moving from one relative’s home to another. The council finally rescued us by providing another council home. I owe my life to council housing.

In 1966 I watched Cathy Come Home on a Wednesday night after school. Her story reflected ours. Except there was no happy ending.

I’ve always believed that it is a basic human right to live in a decent safe warm house at a rent you can genuinely afford.

In 1976, after studying at Goldsmiths College, I got my first job in the Urban Renewal Team Leicester. I was a Housing Liaison Officer working with diverse residents in the inner city of Leicester helping them to organise to improve their housing conditions and the communities they lived in.

I was lucky in my career. I worked with a number of housing associations always in inner city areas across the country and eventually went on to lead a large housing association called Midland Heart. I have also served on the boards of a number of housing associations and been a chair. Since my retirement I have chaired a national housing charity and served as a chair and trustee of charities working with homeless people.

I have also actively campaigned for a return to the true values of social housing and for investment in genuine social rent homes. I co founded the campaign group SHOUT to do this.

One of the key developments in the sector was when the majority of HAs decided to go along with the government’s ‘voluntary’ Right to Buy. I think you were opposed to that. Could you explain your view on that, and what it meant for the sector?

I have always opposed the Right to Buy. I persuaded my Dad not to take up the offer when it was introduced. Reminding him that a council house had rescued us when we were homeless and if it were sold it would not be there to house people in future.

In 1980 I was working as a regional officer for what was then called the National Federation of Housing Associations. I helped to lead the campaign against extending the right to buy to housing associations. We won that campaign and I have argued against its extension ever since. Therefore I was devastated when the sector did a shady deal with the government to enter into a voluntary agreement. Sadly I was a lone voice as sector leaders queued up to sign the deal. I continue to oppose it and I think more now support me as the housing crisis grows. Quite simply there is a shortage of social rent housing. Just as in the council sector extending the right to buy would make that worse. Since 2010 there has been a net loss of 250000 social rent homes. We can’t afford to lose more. Fortunately the extension has prove difficult to implement but it hangs over us like a Damocles sword.

There has clearly been a polarisation in the sector between those that have some sense of their ‘social purpose’ and those that have developed more of a commercial approach. What’s your view on that?

In my career I have always worked in organisations that had a strong social purpose. When I became a leader I tried to ensure that this was embedded in the culture of our work. On boards I have often been called the ‘social conscience, of the organisation. So it was with dismay that I began to realise as my career progressed that some housing associations had taken the pursuit of commercialism too far and had lost their social purpose. This has accelerated in recent years. And I have actively spoken out against it. I have been criticised and ostracised for doing so by a number of housing leaders.

They would argue they had been forced to become more commercial as they grew bigger in order to develop new homes. That they have been forced to do so by government policy. This may be true. But too many have been too complicit in the pursuit of growth.

Recent reports now support my stance. They identified clearly that one of the main reasons for some of the horrific recent housing failures is that delivering our core social purpose is no longer a priority. It also gives advice on how to do so. I would argue that if you don’t understand the true core purpose of social housing and how to deliver it you are in the wrong job.

I fear that some housing associations will go the way of building societies. Philanthropic bodies that were established in the 19th Century to do good which were deregulated some years ago and are now purely commercial with little or no social purpose at all.

The use of ‘affordable rent’ has gone further with HAs than with councils. Do you think it’s acceptable or do you think HAs should concentrate on social rent properties?

One of the biggest mistakes in social housing in recent years is to normalise the use of the term ‘affordable rent’. It is Orwellian in its use. To those in the greatest need it is not affordable and never will be. In my view it should not even be defined as social housing. It meets a need but not the one I joined social housing for. We have played into the government’s hands by adopting it so fully.

Of course we should concentrate on social rent. That is why I helped establish SHOUT to campaign for it. But we can only build more social rent homes with government funding. We need a return to the levels of investment I mentioned earlier which took place in the post war years. Investment supported by both Labour and Conservative governments. Our research in SHOUT showed not only does such investment save money it saves lives.

What’s your view on HAs building for sale and ‘shared ownership.

I declare an interest here. I worked on some of the earliest shared ownership models in 1980s. It was then seen as a peripheral activity. Not real social housing at all. Today it forms a major part of some development programmes. I still believe it should not be classed as social housing. Associations argue that they build for sale and shared ownership partly because it meets a need but also to create surpluses to cross subsidise so called affordable rent development. To make for up the huge reductions in government grant in recent years. For some, especially many residents, it is a flawed tenure. It is not shared and it is not ownership. The contracts heavily favour the housing association. The fact that such ‘assets’ are now traded by not for profit landlords says it all.

With the shocking death of Awaab Ishak the issue of damp and mould has hit the headlines. Why do you think this problem has emerged and what should be done about it?

There is a long term maintenance problem in the housing sector. This applies to private, social and council housing. I helped to identified this in some work I did in 1990s. This is compounded by poor quality development and a lack of maintenance. Having said that there is no doubt that in recent years housing associations and some councils have failed to maintain their homes properly and have ignored tenants when they made justifiable complaints. This ended up in the tragic deaths at Grenfell and in Rochdale. As the work of Kwajo Tweneboa and Daniel Hewitt and other campaigners have shown these are not isolated incidents. There is an endemic problem

In the sector. When these issues were first raised many sector leaders were in denial. The weight of evidence means they can no longer ignore the issue or worse blame it on the tenants. It is a shameful indictment on the sector that government action and new regulatory powers are required to ensure that housing associations and councils carry out basic services. I have been calling for these changes for some years. It took louder voices than mine and tragic deaths to shame the government and the sector into action.

Some would argue housing associations have grown too big as part of the reason for this. That they have lost their social purpose. That they fail to listen to tenants. That they are simply concerned with making money. There is some truth in all of this and there is no doubt that some of the long term maintenance issues will be difficult to resolve. But unless they are made a priority and the subject of significant investment they will continue.

Whilst HAs often have tenants on their boards they have a legal duty towards the business, rather than being accountable to the tenants. At least with a council you have the chance of removing your landlord (in local elections) whereas you can’t vote the business management out. What’s your view on this?

It is a cliche in social housing that tenants are at the heart of what we do. I’m many cases nothing could be further from the truth. Some housing associations have well developed tenant involvement schemes others just play lip service to it. Token tenants on the board do little to change this. In my view tenants should have more genuine control and housing associations should be more accountable to local communities. It is true that council tenants can remove their landlord but their have been failures here too. I have no doubt that some housing associations have grown too big. They have lost sight of their tenants and the communities they work in. Cultural changes have taken place too which have led to a loss of social purpose.

It is time for new organisations and new structures to be developed which are genuinely accountable to local tenants and communities. I’m agnostic about whether they are within a council or housing association structure. I’ve seen excellent examples of both. I am a proud product of council housing. I spent most of my career in social housing. Both can be a true force for good and change as long as we remember why we are here. To provide a decent safe and warm home to those in need at a price they can genuinely afford.

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