Tom Murtha's Keynote Speech from the Tpas Conference 2018

Wednesday 25th of July 2018

It’s Tpas’s 30th birthday this year so our opening session at the Tpas Tenant Conference 2018 was a little different to celebrate that. It was the perfect time to pause and reflect on where social housing has come in that time and take a look forward to where it can go next.

With his wealth of housing experience and history of campaigning, housing campaigner, Tom Murtha guided us through some of the key highlights, and lowlights, of the past 30 years of housing and involvement. When we understand the past we can better shape our future.


"2018 is a year of anniversaries. As we have heard it is the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Tpas. I was there at the beginning in 1988. I worked for a housing association which provided funding to enable it to happen. Congratulations. I will say more about your work later.

Yesterday July 10th was the 15th anniversary of my Mam’s death. I have written elsewhere about how I, as a 12lb breeched baby, survived my traumatic birth when my brother who was born in 1947 didn’t. I benefitted from the NHS which celebrates its 70th birthday this year and from living in a council house that was built during the post war boom of council house building which was supported by both political parties. It was during those years that we built over 300000 homes. We need that type of investment today to help overcome the housing crisis. It is not an exaggeration to say that I owe my life to the welfare state. The legacy of that great post war Labour government. I often say that it is only when it has disappeared that we will realise why the welfare state was established in the first place.

Yesterday was also the 1st anniversary of the death of my mother in law, Mukta. She arrived in this country with her daughter and son 50 years ago, in 1968, to avoid the introduction of a racist Nationality Act. Her daughter, Vishva, who later became my wife, came home from school on a Friday night to be told they were going to England. They arrived on the Monday with no money, no friends and nowhere to stay. Only Vishva spoke English, yet they managed to find their way from Heathrow to Leicester and to find somewhere to stay. Their story is a testament to the contribution immigrants have made throughout the ages. Vishva and I were married in 1973 and this year we celebrate our sapphire wedding anniversary. If I have achieved anything in my life it is because of her.

In her later years Mukta suffered from dementia. As her condition deteriorated we began to understand how government cuts have reduced the social care available for those in need. This combination of cuts to our welfare system has exacerbated the housing crisis and shown that we need to address the problems on many fronts and not in isolation. In her last few weeks Mukta went into a care home which was managed by one of the BME housing associations that were established in the 1980s. They too are celebrating their 30th anniversary. They have made a tremendous contribution to housing and diversity in the UK. One of the things I am most proud of in my career is that I played a small part in their beginning; in Leicester, Birmingham, Leeds, and Liverpool.

I have already said that I owe my life to the welfare state and to social housing. It provided a home until my late 20s and a career from 1976 to this day. In 1965 my family were made homeless. At that time we were living in tied accommodation. My Dad lost his job and we lost our home. It was as simple and as quick as that. We spent the next 9 months walking the streets of Leicester and sleeping at the homes of various relatives and friends. Today it would be called sofa surfing but we didn’t have sofas in the 1960s. We had settees!

My Dad visited the council every day to remind them we needed a home. They had no statutory responsibility to help us except by providing hostel accommodation which my Dad refused. Eventually they provided us with a new home on the Goodwood Estate in Leicester. The next year, 1966, I sat down one night to watch the Wednesday Play and saw a television drama which echoed our plight. Cathy Come Home was one of the most important media events in housing history. It stirred the conscience of a nation and led to the establishment of Shelter. Many of the HAs represented here today were set up because of Cathy. Many are celebrating their 50th anniversary. They were established by church groups, community groups, and individuals who wanted to provide homes for homeless people. We owe them all a debt of gratitude. We have a duty to honour their legacy by continuing their social purpose.

I left school in 1968. Yet another 50th anniversary. I went to work at a local factory. I stayed there for 2 years and hated every minute of it. In 1970 I left to do A levels at an FE college. Something that would also be difficult to do today because of more government cuts. In 1972 I began a history degree course at Goldsmiths College. I left in 1976 with a degree and a PGCE. It was time to find a real job.

If you think it has been hot recently you should have witnessed the summer of 1976. I spent the long hot summer on the parks of London waiting for a job to turn up. Of course I waited in vain. I was applying for teaching jobs and my references said that I was politically active which did not appeal to potential employers. One day I received a phone call from my Dad. He told me that there was a job vacancy at Leicester City Council where he then worked. It was a community post in John Perry’s Renewal Strategy Team. I said that I knew nothing about community work. He replied bluntly. “You can talk can’t you? “ I applied and was appointed. Not because I was the first choice. I wasn’t. But because the person chosen had given John a masonic handshake. This did not impress John and he appointed me instead.

My Job as a Housing Liaison Officer was to set up tenant and resident groups to work with the Council in the inner city of Leicester. A newspaper report on my first public meeting said this.

“Mr Tom Murtha told the meeting of residents how he hoped they would help the project…You will have an important role to play. The council wants to know the feelings of local people and you will play an important part in decision making by telling the council what you think is best” Leicester Mercury 1977.

Even 40 years ago tenants were at the heart of our work. But there was a problem. Local councillors were unhappy that power was being transferred to local tenants. They liked to use their influence to exert local control. In short their egos got in the way of the process. I often think this is still true in some housing associations today. Leaders find it difficult to release control and their egos get in the way.

40 years ago in 1978 I began my first role in a housing association. It was called CCHA. It was based in the inner city of Coventry and had been established by a group of local people following the showing of Cathy Come Home. My title was Tenant Support Team Leader. The emphasis being on tenants not housing. Again we involved tenants in much of our work especially the regeneration of 19th Century inner city terraced streets.

And my final anniversary, 30 years ago in 1988, I started my first executive director role at MIH, now Riverside. I was 36 and still wet behind the ears. Riverside was the one of the largest housing associations in the country. The owned and managed about 15000 homes, which is relatively small by today’s standards. As I said earlier they helped to fund Tpas as tenant engagement was an essential part of their work. Tpas has done some great work in the last 30 years. They have changed and so has the sector.


The most obvious change is that many housing associations are much bigger. The largest owning over 150000 homes. Their structures are more complex and they are more diverse. Many carry out a whole range of work apart from social housing. But this still makes up the majority of our work if not our new ventures.

The greatest impact on social housing in recent years is probably stock transfer from local authorities. It certainly changed many things and led to the improvement of many homes and estates. But did it also change the culture of our sector?

Mergers have always existed. But the number and size of mergers have increased significantly in recent years. Some have argued that mergers and growth have caused some housing associations to lose touch with their tenants, stakeholders and local communities.

Housing associations are much more financially complex than they were 30 years ago. The introduction of mixed funding in the late 1980s led to the development of large loan portfolios and the joys of gearing, covenants and credit ratings. The reduction of government funding in recent years has caused some housing associations to be more commercial and business like. Again some have argued that this has led to a drift from our original social purpose.

The Right to Buy which was introduced in the early 1980s has led to a dramatic reduction in the number of social homes. This is one of the main causes of the current shortage. Homes were sold and never replaced. Over 40% of those sold are now let by private landlords. This is why I have always opposed the Right to Buy. I was part of a successful campaign to stop it being extended to charitable housing associations in 1981. I was one of the few who opposed the voluntary agreement reached by our trade body recently. I am pleased to say I even persuaded my Dad not to buy our council home, which is still providing a much needed home in Leicester today.

In 2010 the Coalition Government began to introduce a series of policies which have accelerated this change process. Government grant and investment was slashed. The Orwellian Affordable rent regime was introduced. It is estimated by the CIOH that between 2012 and 2020 we will lose around 250000 social rent homes. Austerity measures and welfare reforms have made life more difficult for many tenants. At the same time the government began a campaign to demonise social housing and its tenants. I was one of the few chief executives to speak out against this at the time.

We have witnessed; an increase in poverty, an increase in homelessness, and an increase in inequality. Tenants have borne the brunt of the changes and some housing leaders remained silent as it was happening. This led to claims that some have lost their social purpose. Certainly there is evidence of a loss of trust. And in London many talk about social cleansing.

In 2012 I decided to move on from my full time role as a housing association chief executive. I soon became angry about what was happening and in the absence to any sector led resistant to the government reforms, I helped to establish SHOUT with Alison Inman and others. Our objective was to speak out for social housing and to challenge the demonization of tenants. We were criticised for doing this by some housing leaders and likened to a 1970s Labour militant grouping. For a time we were a loan voice.

But now, housing leaders are talking about the need to invest in social rent homes again. This is supported by two recent commissions which have identified the lack of trust in housing associations as a major issue. They prioritise a need to rebuild trust by returning to our social purpose. They talk about the need for welfare reforms. And most importantly of all they urge all housing associations to fully engage with their tenants.

To me it is clear that if we had listened to tenants more in recent years we would have avoided some of the mistakes we have made. This is not just a reference to the horrors of Grenfell but to all of our work. Of course some housing associations have continued to do great work with tenants and communities throughout these years. Some appear to have had other priorities.

So 30 years on we need to celebrate your success. But recognise there is much more to do. It is time for a change in the tenants’ role. To fully embrace your potential and engagement. It is time for a change in regulation to enable this to happen. It is time for a fully independent national tenants’ group to be established. It is time for housing associations to change.

To do this we need; a change in regulation, a change in funding, a change in culture, and a change in governance. We need a proper debate on how far we take this from limited involvement to full empowerment and control.

There is hope. The sector is changing, all be it slowly. The Government appear to be supportive. There is a new generation of chief executives with new ideas and new thinking. They appear more willing to share and even transfer power. And above of all, there is you. Thousands of tenants who are willing and able to take on the role. I salute your passion, your commitment, your skills, and your values. You have kept the flame burning for 30 years and more. My challenge to you is to keep it burning, to light the fire of true tenant power across the housing sector".


Find out more information about the Tpas National Tenant Conference here