Obituary: Chris Holmes CBE

Chris Holmes, who died on 2 December after a long struggle with illness, was a towering figure in the housing world for more than 40 years.

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Chris led many organisations in his extraordinary career: Shelter, where he was Deputy Director from 1974-1976 and Director from 1995-2002, tripling its income and increasing its influence commensurately; Camden, where he was a hugely influential and innovative Director of Housing from 1990-1995, putting into practice what he preached; the single homeless charity CHAR, where he was Director from 1982-87; East London Housing Association (Director, 1980-82); the Society for Co-operative Dwellings (Director, 1976-79), and North Islington Housing Rights Project (Director, 1972-74). He was also variously a Board Member of the National Consumer Council, the Housing Corporation, the Youth Justice Board and the Minister for Housing and Planning’s Sounding Board (1997-2002). He was also active in the Labour Party and was a founder of the Labour Housing Group in the early 1980s.

Many tributes have already been paid to Chris, but there is one particularly noteworthy theme. So many people say he inspired them to work in housing and to campaign for the rights of homeless and badly-housed people. Whatever job he had, day and night he was a campaigner, a communicator, and a motivator.

Campaigns in which Chris played a major part included the extension of security of tenure in the 1974 Rent Act and the transformative Housing (Homeless Persons) Act of 1977, which changed government and public attitudes towards homeless people. In the early 1980s he led the campaign for comprehensive new rights for people living in houses in multiple occupation in a Bill which passed the House of Commons only to fall when the 1983 Election was called – what a difference that would have made. In the early 2000s he again campaigned for stronger homelessness duties, which led to Labour’s 2002 Homelessness Act, then grasped the opportunity it created by launching Shelter into an enormous campaign to influence the practice of every local authority in the country as they wrote their new statutory homelessness strategies.

Chris inspired people though his leadership, his dedication, his encouragement of others, his sheer hard work, and his seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of his subject. But he was also a remarkable orator, capturing many audiences with his fluency and passion. He was a restless thinker, always ready with new ideas and new policies to debate, often controversially, although he never wavered from his core belief in the vital importance of social rented housing. He championed people’s housing rights and spoke out against the use of discriminatory language referring to social tenants and homeless people. He wrote hundreds of articles and made thousands of speeches but he was always ready to sit quietly and talk through the detail of a point.

In 2000 he led Ken Livingstone’s Housing Commission: as London had lacked a strategic authority for many years, he started with a blank canvass but steered a complex course through the new Mayor’s untested planning powers to create (looking back from 2014) an extraordinarily progressive and ambitious set of policies.

In addition to his many articles, Chris wrote and contributed to a number of books. His tour de force, A New Vision for Housing, published in 2005, has become a standard text. It traced the avoidable policy mistakes over 50 years which led to the gross under-supply of homes and set out new ideas for creating housing justice and sustainable communities. He became a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research and wrote an accessible but honest history of the Notting Hill Housing Trust, published in 2006, concluding privately that the organisation had lost sight of its founding moral purpose. He remained capable of stirring controversy, speaking out against excessive pay in the housing association sector when his term on the Board of the Housing Corporation ended in 2008 (when it was replaced by the Tenant Services Authority).

Like most people, Chris had his struggles in life. He had a number of serious illnesses and became dependant on alcohol, a problem he controlled but which ultimately, and grossly unfairly, cost him his job at Shelter just weeks after an external review concluded that “virtually all respondents felt Shelter’s campaigning work was very dependent on Chris Holmes and his high-level relationships”. In his last years he suffered from vascular dementia and other conditions which required use of a wheelchair, but he retained his voracious appetite for reading, especially modern politics, and derived enormous pleasure from the birth of his grandchild, Katherine Rose.

Chris was born into a staunchly Methodist family in Yorkshire in 1942, the son of Gordon, who was an insurance broker, and Doris, who worked in a bank until marriage. They lived near Otley. He was educated at Bradford Grammar School and the Leys School Cambridge. He took a degree in Economics at Clare College Cambridge. His Yorkshire roots perhaps explain his love both of hill walking and of cricket – he has been described as ‘a good batsman’. He was awarded the CBE in 1998 for services to homelessness and Shelter.

Chris Holmes 2

Chris married twice, having two children, John and Kelda, with Ann Holmes, with whom he remained great friends after their separation, and two, Cub and Sara, with Hattie Llewelyn-Davies. His love of housing was exceeded only by his love of family. The photo illustrates both, showing Chris after a 40 mile bike ride for Shelter, undertaken, despite not having ridden for 35 years, with son Cub, then aged 10. Hattie says ‘It shows his complete determination… No one but Chris would have thought it reasonable to attempt such a mad trip… I love the photo because he was so happy and it sets out his twin passions for housing and his family.’

The fulsome words used by so many in tribute to Chris – principled, generous, tireless campaigner, an inspiration, caring, compassionate – do not entirely do justice to his intellect, his capacity to lead and his impact on public policy. There have been very few of his like.

Steve Hilditch

If you have memories of Chris, please add a comment on the site below.

This Obituary has also been published by Inside Housing magazine and can be found here. 

And Malcolm Dean’s Obituary for the Guardian can be read here.

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11 Responses to Obituary: Chris Holmes CBE

  1. Pingback: Cameron fails the empathy test | Red Brick

  2. Jackie King-Owen says:

    Fantastic obituary for a great man. I remember Chris in his CHAR days when he would travel to our monthly meetings in Leicester. Together we introduced controls in HMOs as early as 1985 which required a ‘fit’ person to run bed and breakfast. He was a beacon of light in an often dark world-strong and principled. I did not appreciate his relationship with Hattie who I had the pleasure of knowing via our national work at SNHAS which later became SITRA. Then Jackie Lawton, I worked in the Leicester pilot project SPACE which was funded by the Monument Trust. Condolences to Hattie and her family. Hi to Tom Murtha and John Perry too. Jackie King-Owen

  3. Pingback: The homeless are not just for Christmas | Red Brick

  4. julesbirch says:

    Great obituary to a great man, Steve. How we could do with more people like him now.
    I worked for Shelter throughout his time at Shelter. The things I remember best are the campaign against the watering down of the homelessness legislation in the 1996 Housing Act and the successful campaign to get the right to permanent housing restored in 2002. From the perspective of 2014, and in the wake of the Localism Act, that seems an even more impressive achievement than it did at the time.
    I didn’t know Chris well but he was indirectly responsible for me starting to write about housing and homelessness in the first place. As I understand it, in his first spell at Shelter in the 70s it was Chris that came up with the idea of publishing an editorially independent magazine called ROOF. I took a temporary job there in 1993 intending to stay for a few months and here I am still writing about housing.

  5. Gavin Corbett says:

    I worked with Chris throughout his time at Shelter and found him relentlessly curious about housing ideas and what would make things better. He was always interested in what happened here in Scotland but had the good judgement to know when to let us get on with it too.

  6. That is a wonderful obituary and a fitting tribute to a great campaigner and one of the giants of housing. Thanks.

  7. Marc Francis says:

    I had the privilage of working for Shelter during Chris’ last year as Director and saw at first hand just how effective he was in defending the rights of homeless people. Not only did his relentless campaigning force Labour ministers to bring forward legislation to repair the holes in the homeless safety net created by the 1996 Act, but as you say, he then put Shelter’s resources behind a determined effort to ensure local authorities signed up to the spirit as well as the letter of the new law.

    In that final year, he also started Shelter’s successful campaigns to end the use of Bed & Breakfast for homeless families and reform the Right to Buy. It is telling how quickly after his departure, the impetus behind Shelter’s Homelessness Act Implementation campaign began to wither. And it wasn’t all that long before the strategic and preventative approach to homelessness required in the 2002 Act slid back into “gatekeeping” homeless people from making applications in the first place.

    I am sure Chris’ persistence put some noses out of joint in the corridors of power, but that is almost inevitable when you are the Director of Shelter, and my experience, he was never anything other than professional and courteous in his approach. Chris’ views may be unfashionable with political leaders today, but he made a massive contribution to public life and i am really pleased to hear that he was able to put his departure from Shelter behind him, and enjoy such a happy family life.

  8. tommurtha says:

    Thank you for this wonderful tribute Steve. I have said elsewhere that Chris was an inspiration to a generation of people who became involved in social housing to help those in greatest need. As my old friend John Perry has said we need more leaders like him today to defend and speak out for social housing. Listening to Chris’s passionate and incisive speeches was a highlight of any Conference. I used to joke that everyone should hear him speak at least once a year to be refreshed in the true spirit and values of a once great sector. On a lighter note I was with him once when he was prevented from entering a Nat Fed Disco in Sheffield in the early 80s by an over zealous security guard. I am ashamed to say I shouted at the man saying “don’t you know who this is?” He didn’t of course but we all did. He was Chris Holmes, one of the giants of the social housing sector and much more. R.I.P. Chris.

  9. Kerry Pollard says:

    Chris an Icon, a towering figure in Housing, a privilege to have known him, many of us walk in his shadow. Kerry Pollard – Chair LHG

  10. Chris was a pivotal figure in the early days of Shelter and had great skills and judgement as a campaigner which I witnessed in my role as research officer. As well as the Homeless Persons Act, Chris ensured that Shelter played a key role in the struggle to preserve council housing in the 1970s as the Labour Party froze all new public housing construction during the 1976 IMF crisis. One later outcome was cross-party support for the tenants charter – which gave security of tenure to council tenants – even as the right to buy was incorporated into legislation by the Thatcher government.

  11. John Perry says:

    Steve, that’s an excellent obituary of Chris and one that fills in gaps of which I was unaware. And I liked Hattie’s lovely words about his ‘twin passions’. There have indeed been few of his like.

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