It is forty years since I first met Richard Crossley and we have been good friends and sometimes house mates since. We learned the community development ropes together in North Paddington in the 1970s and have debated the issues around housing and community empowerment at great length ever since. We were reunited in a work sense in 2008 when Richard was the lead officer based in Communities and Local Government setting up the National Tenant Voice (subsequently becoming its first and only chief executive) and I chaired the Government’s project group.
Recently Richard was diagnosed as having a rare form of incurable cancer and is currently undergoing chemotherapy. In a typical Richard way, he has decided to write about his illness, his diagnosis and subsequent thoughts and experiences, in a frank, and, to his friends, heart-rending blog called World turned upside down.
In his latest post, Richard reflects on his career in housing and community empowerment, and it is a privilege to re-post it here on Red Brick.
By Richard Crossley
I’ve often thought it a shame that people don’t get to hear their own obituaries. Last Friday I was privileged to hear mine, when my work with social housing tenants was recognised at the TPAS Northern Awards ceremony held in Manchester. The chairs of the four National Tenant Organisations (NTOs) each spoke about the work I’ve done and the influences I’ve had. It was a proud if somewhat embarrassing moment for me. I got chance to say a few words, and decided to focus on my career rather than my illness and treatment, so that it was more of a retirement recognition rather than a premature wake! So I thought in this blog I’d set out (probably slightly more coherently than I did in Manchester!) some reflections on my working life.
The first thing that shocked me was that my career spans over 40 years. 40 years!! Where did that time go? I can still remember clearly working for the Cyrenians with homeless people in Cambridge in 1971/72 – and after that for 4 years as a community worker in North Paddington. I can remember things I did around that time more clearly than what I did last week! Mine has not been a typical career – but reflecting on it I have no regrets at all about the career choices I’ve made (there’ve been occasions when I’ve thought I would have been better off with a more traditional career that would have enabled me like so many of my generation to retire early with a good pension, but given recent events for me that wouldn’t have been a good choice – following heart rather than head and bank account has definitely been the right move).
I think there’ve been two drivers to the choices I’ve made. The first has been about trying to achieve some sense of social justice. The second has been about supporting and enabling people without a voice to have some influence over their lives and their neighbourhoods. I’ve been employed by tenants’ organisations, voluntary organisations, local authorities, and spent many years with the ground-breaking Priority Estates Project (PEP), before going on a 5-year secondment to central government and then working with the NTOs to set up the National Tenant Voice. Over that time I’ve worked with some amazing people: colleagues, housing professionals, councillors, civil servants……but most of all inspiring tenants and residents, many living in neglected housing and neighbourhoods seemingly abandoned by public services who despite all that have been willing to stick their heads above the parapet and strive to make a difference. They are the people who make me look back with pride and affection at my career.
Of course there have been disappointments along the way. Leaving aside specific events (such as the Coalition Government’s chopping of the National Tenant Voice, or the last government winding up the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit half way through its programme without any analysis of its lessons and achievements ) there are three I’d like to mention.
Firstly, we have a seemingly pathological capacity to re-invent wheels. Every new government – indeed every new minister when I was at DCLG – has to make his/her mark with something “new”. (I do recognise of course that the current government isn’t so much re-inventing wheels as taking them off). Usually only the name and packaging is new, but it’s the refusal to recognise what’s gone before and learn from it and build on it that has been so frustrating. It’s not just governments that are guilty of this – there are many wheelwrights in the housing and regeneration professions.
Secondly, there’s a growing reluctance amongst housing providers and others to invest in community development. Maybe it’s that community development isn’t properly understood, or maybe it doesn’t produce quick enough results. But I know it’s a process that’s likely to produce more sustainable results if done properly. I took such an approach in developing Charteris Neighbourhood Management Co-operative in Islington in the late 1970s, and with others on Belle Isle North estate in Leeds in the 1980s. Charteris Co-op is still going some 30+ years later, and Belle Isle has been successfully managed by tenants for around 20 years. Both these successes are the result of a community development approach.
Thirdly, in the new world of co-regulation, tenant panels and tenant management, I have a worry that we are becoming too caught up in partnership and management, and as a result are losing a radical edge. I know from all the work I’ve done supporting tenant management that it will only be effective where landlord and tenant work together, and I’ve been promoting partnership working as much as anyone. But I also know that at the end of the day power rests almost entirely with the landlord. I know of many examples where landlords resist tenants having any real say, or where independent tenant organisations no longer get funding. Sometimes a bit of agitation, a bit of direct action, a rattling of the cage, is needed to bring about change. It will be a shame if that radical tradition of the tenant movement is lost. I said at the TPAS Awards that they should consider an award for “agitator of the year”. Assuming I’m still around a year from now, I’d happily present such an award!