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.
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 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.
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.