Interview: Tom Murtha, social housing campaigner

Meet the "conscience of housing"

Tom Murtha has been dubbed the “conscience of housing”, now the retired chief executive turned social housing agitator tells Mark Cantrell why the tenure matters and why its stewards must relearn a fighting spirit

First publishing in the April/May 2015 edition of Housing magazine

SOMETIMES, it’s personal; professionalism needs that spark to light the fire in its belly it needs to make a difference. Enter Tom Murtha. Since he retired as chief executive of Midland Heart three years ago, he’s been striking flint with his outspoken efforts to re-ignite the social housing world’s fighting spirit.

“A lot of people think that because I’ve become a little bit more outspoken in the last couple of years there’s been a change in my outlook, but the reality is, if anyone knows my history – and I celebrate 40 years in housing next year – I’ve always had a reputation for being outspoken,” he said. “I guess I can speak out a little bit more now I’m no longer a chief executive but I hope I did speak out when I was [one]. I was one of the few to challenge Grant Shapps when he started to talk about ‘lazy social housing’ and he demonised the sector.

“I don’t see things from an operational point of view anymore: I see things from a policy point of view, and reflect right back to the beginning of my career when I was always opposed to inequality, when I was always opposed to people being oppressed, I was always opposed to people being poor, and I was always opposed to racism. On all those issues, I’ve been incredibly constant throughout my career.”

Murtha is one of the founding members of the campaign, Social Housing Under Threat (SHOUT), which is dedicated to challenging the ‘lazy consensus’ that the tenure has had its day. When he’s not making a nuisance of himself in the pursuit of its cause, he serves as chair of HACT, as well as homelessness charity Emmaus, and he’s on the board of Plus Dane – “it keeps me real” he said.

Social housing is a “force for good” as far as Murtha is concerned. “I come from the generation immediately after the war where social housing provided a home for millions and millions of people. Compare that to before the war, when people were living in poverty and very poor housing, I think it was an amazing transformation – and we should continue to celebrate that. Social housing has continued to do that over a long period of time,” he said.

“Clearly the environment has changed, society has changed, financial approaches to what we do have changed, but at its best social housing still produces the best quality, the best managed property at the best price in the country. We lose that at our peril. It provides a safety net, but it also provides a springboard: a home and stability provides everything else we need in life to move on.

“I recognise there have been difficulties, I recognise there has been talk of residualisation, but the reality is the majority of people living in social housing are ordinary people just like you and me who want to live an ordinary life. They want the opportunities that we have had, and sometimes don’t have those opportunities and maybe need a bit more support. I don’t actually sign up to the proposition that social housing has failed.”

Perhaps it’s more a case that the tenure has been failed by its stewards; a failing that has left it wide open to external attack.

“I don’t think as a sector we’ve sold our product well enough. I hate to use the word product because it puts it in a different dimension, but I think we have allowed others to talk the product down,” Murtha said. “Some of our leaders have not spoken up for the product strongly enough, and I guess that’s why I’ve been speaking up for it in the last two or three years. I got quite angry that we seem to be losing something that I think is very precious.”

He cites Right-to-Buy, which has taken a heavy toll on stocks of council housing – a policy David Cameron recently suggested would be extended to housing associations if his party won the election – then there’s the conversion to “so-called” Affordable Rent, the collapse in investment to build new social stock, and so does it continue to dwindle. Murtha is clearly outraged by this.

“[Social housing is] something that we should be protecting and building and growing – and be very proud of,” he added. “Not to be naive, not to look at the world through rose-coloured spectacles, but actually proud of a product that millions of people live in and millions of people enjoy. What we provide is something that is extremely high quality, well-managed, and at a really good price. We’re crazy if we don’t continue to promote that.”

So, how did the social sector lose its campaigning edge? “It’s become too professional, I don’t know,” he laughed. Then added: “I talk a lot about values. I talk about passion. I talk about the need occasionally to get angry. I believe that we should continue to innovate as a sector. But I also believe that there was a spirit in the sector, which the people who founded housing associations had, about social justice and helping those in greatest need, and which delivered some of the greatest developments we as a sector have.

“That is now under attack – and I worry that as a sector we have not resisted it enough. I think we have lost some of that campaigning and lobbying spirit as we’ve become more professional and, in inverted commas, more commercial. We’ve lost 120,000 social homes in the last three years: that’s the equivalent of a city the size of Leicester – and we’ve had no outcry about it.”

He added: “It’s only when social housing is no longer there that people will realise how important it is. The starting point of a successful society and a flourishing economy is a decent home, and for millions of people social housing is still their only hope of a decent home. And we forget that. I fear that if social housing disappears more and more people will be homeless, more and more people will suffer, society will suffer, and the economy will suffer.”

For Murtha, social housing inevitably mingles the professional and the personal since it is intimately tied up with his own family history and experience. He hasn’t just forged a career in the sector; he was born and raised in social housing. And, as he has written about on his blog, it was social housing that provided his family with a stable home after a period of homelessness. Today, while he no longer resides in the tenure himself, social housing provides the homes where all of his extended family live their lives.

So he knows the value and importance of social housing from lived experience, and this undoubtedly fuels his campaigning ire. But it’s not a cause that Murtha – or his fellow SHOUTers – can secure alone. The wider sector needs to find that will to win.

“Social housing is in my blood,” he said. “I’ve worked in it for 40 years; I’ve lived in it. I believe in this sector – I just wish the sector would believe in itself more.” 

This article first appeared in the April/May 2015 print edition of Housing magazine. It was subsequently published on the Housing Excellence website, 28 April 2015

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