The first chief executive of the National Tenant Voice, set up by Labour but abolished by the Coalition Government shortly after the last election, has died of the rare peritoneal cancer aged 64. We were friends for 42 years.
Having worked at the front-line of community development for his entire career, Richard was seconded from the Priority Estates Project (PEP) to the Communities and Local Government Department to work on neighbourhoods policy before being asked to project manage the setting up the new National Tenant Voice (NTV), designed to make social tenants much more influential in the development of policy at local and national level.
Richard’s networking and people skills – honed on estates around the country – were crucial in negotiating the minefield of civil service rules and procedures, and getting the Treasury and Cabinet Office behind the project – a quango run by tenants wasn’t a concept they entirely understood. Richard made it happen but he also made sure that the tenants’ movement stayed in firm control of the project. Following its establishment, which involved bringing together tenants from all over the country into a National Tenant Council, Richard was appointed as the first chief executive. Regrettably, he was hardly in post before the incoming Coalition Minister, Grant Shapps, abolished the NTV and pushed tenants out into the policy wilderness again.
Richard’s career was unusual because he had no intention of climbing the greasy pole. He loved working with tenants on the ground and realising the untapped potential of community leaders in some of the country’s most deprived communities. His first job, a rare step for a civil engineering graduate from Nottingham University, was with Cambridge Cyrenians, followed by a four year stint doing community work in North Paddington. Then on to Stonebridge Estate in Brent, setting up the Charteris Neighbourhood Management Co-op in Islington and the tenant management scheme on Belle Isle Estate in Leeds (both still successful after 20-30 years). He then worked for PEP until his Government secondment, helping and advising tenants on estates all over the north of England.
Richard’s decision to leave London and return to Yorkshire in 1984 was a watershed moment for him. He was a real, but not stereotypical, son of Yorkshire – West Yorkshire to be exact. Born and raised in Halifax, the son of a monumental mason, the area was in his blood. From there he could easily reach his beloved Yorkshire Dales and even the Lake District to indulge his other passion – walking the fells. He settled in Leeds with his partner Jane Williams, conveniently almost within touching distance of the cricket ground.
In Headingley Richard and Jane set about building a new community spirit, with a range of projects on the go at any one time. With others they formed the hugely successful Headingley Development Trust which now runs a series of projects including HEART, a large social enterprise centre packed with activities. Amongst other things, Richard loved organising the film club, with the selection of films decided by the members.
In 2012 Richard achieved one of his life ambitions, to go trekking in the Himalayas. His high point was Gokyo Ri, a peak 5200m above sea level commanding an astonishing view of the Everest range and much more. To get there he had to endure snow, severe temperatures of -20c and the effects of altitude. He took it all in his stride and, as a regular runner (having competed, for example, in the Great North Run) he seemed to be at the peak of his fitness.
Within a year of the trek Richard had fallen ill, had a bowel operation and then been diagnosed with a rare and incurable cancer of the peritoneum. Intensive treatments followed at ‘Jimmy’s’ hospital in Leeds and the Christie in Manchester, but, as his health declined, Richard launched a new adventure. He started writing the most extraordinary blog, detailing his illness and treatment, but also his reflections on life and death: he was a humanist and did not believe in the afterlife. He praised the wonderful staff of the NHS and reflected on his career and housing policy, and on his love of the dales and mountains. He criticised the language of cancer: I’m not battling an external force called cancer, he would say, I’m living with it: when I die, it doesn’t win, it dies too. He wrote movingly and inspiringly, completing his last entry days before his death.
Richard’s blog stands as a testament to a uniquely strong and emotionally literate person, full of compassion and empathy but with the competitive streak of an activist. A long-term supporter of CND, his politics were a mix of red and green, but his distinctive contribution was as the unwavering advocate of much-maligned social tenants. He had an enduring belief in the ability of ordinary people to work collectively to take greater control over their lives and environments.
In January 2014 Richard received an OBE for services to neighbourhoods and tenants. It was a just award, even for a committed republican. But it took a superhuman effort (by him and his family) to come to London for the Investiture in March 2014. Despite his now extreme ill-health and weakness, Richard refused a wheelchair and walked the whole event, taking the family for a celebratory coffee and cake afterwards. He even managed to talk to Prince Charles about the advantages of tenant management.
Richard’s wish was to spend his final days at home, which he achieved with the loving care of his partner Jane, daughter Emma and son Alex, and many other family and friends.
Richard Crossley OBE, born 11 January 1950, died 21 April 2014.