Tom Murtha: Race and Housing – What have we learned?

What am I most proud of in my career?

It is not bringing together and becoming chief executive of one of the leading housing and care groups in the sector. It is not helping to establish SHOUT, the campaign for social housing.

Tom Murtha
Tom Murtha, Chair of North Wales Housing

It is not even being chair of North Wales Housing. What I am most proud of is my work in race and diversity. In my personal and in my professional life, it has brought me the most joy and the most despair.

Fighting discrimination and prejudice runs in my family. My Dad told of an incident during the Second World War when he and his brothers defended a group of black American soldiers who were being attacked by their own military police for drinking in the wrong pub in Leicester. Black Americans could fight and die for their country, they could be world champions like Joe Louis or Jesse Owens, but they were still regarded as second class citizens and barred from many supposedly white only institutions. Segregation and discrimination were part of their everyday life. Sadly, it still is today.

Growing up

I grew up in the 1960s, with the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in the USA and the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South Africa. They shaped my values and desire to challenge racism and discrimination in all of its forms. My first experience of racism was at school in 1964. There was a General Election in that year and a Conservative candidate in Smethwick campaigned on a racist platform using racist slogans. These were repeated by friends in the school playground in front of black and Asian children. I challenged this but I was a lone voice. Even the teachers allowed it to continue. Overt racism and discrimination were commonplace in most schools during the 1960s.

By the 1970s my home town of Leicester was already one of the most diverse cities in Britain. Before the Second World War people migrated to Leicester from all over the UK and beyond. My Dad moved to the city to find work from Gateshead in 1939. After the War many refugees came from Eastern Europe. In the 1950s and 1960s African Caribbean people began to arrive. I remember walking down the road one day and seeing a black man for the first time. I stared and was reprimanded by my Dad. He told me that the man was just the same as us, only a different colour.

In the 1960s and 1970s many East African Asians found refuge in Leicester, despite being warned not to come by the City Council. My wife Vishva was among them. We were married in 1973. It was one of the first so called mixed marriages in the city. I have written elsewhere how it was received by the Asian and white communities.

Over the years the newcomers experienced a mixed and sometimes hostile reception. The National Front gained support in the city and threatened to win political power. I became Secretary to a group that was established to promote racial harmony and challenge the NF. It was an exciting and sometimes dangerous time for those involved. My family were threatened and I had to go ex-directory. Eventually the NF were defeated and Leicester began to develop as a harmonious multi-cultural and diverse city. There are still problems and some racism and discrimination still exists, but the city has a reputation for successful co-existence and integration.

A career in housing

In 1976 I began working for Leicester City Council as a community worker in the heart of the inner city. My job was to encourage different communities to come together to improve neighborhoods as part of the urban renewal programme set up by John Perry. Working together for a common cause helped to create a better understanding between different communities.

However, tensions still existed in Leicester and many cities. In 1981 a combination of racism, discrimination, poverty and unemployment created a powder keg of resentment that exploded on the streets of Brixton, Handsworth, Toxteth and in other inner city areas. I was working for the National Housing Federation at the time and the social unrest was the talk of the main housing conference in that year. At a Sunday morning session a young housing officer from the Commission for Racial Equality challenged the housing sector to respond to the accusation that it was racist and guilty of direct and indirect discrimination and that this had contributed to the urban unrest.

The National Housing Federation took up the challenge and established the sector’s first Race and Housing Group to investigate the issues and make recommendations. Because of my work in that area, I was asked to be secretary to the group. The first Race and Housing Report was published the following year. It found that many housing associations and local authorities were discriminating both in the provision of housing services and employment. It made a number of recommendations which sadly are still relevant today. I believe that this report was a milestone in the long struggle for black and minority ethnic equality in the housing sector.

The situation immediately following the publication of the first Race and Housing Report looked promising. Housing associations began to keep ethnic records and introduced a number of policies to address racism and discrimination. Positive action programmes were introduced which helped to develop future BME leaders. I was involved in these and acted as a coach and mentor.

BME led housing associations were established with the support of the housing regulator and existing housing associations. I helped establish a number of BME housing associations and was chair of a charitable trust which funded them in the North West. Housing associations were encouraged to promote BME led businesses in their supply chains. A crucial factor was that the housing regulator was directly involved and monitored work in this area and took action if associations were failing to promote equality.

By the 1990s the success of this work was beginning to show. The number of BME people housed and employed in the sector grew. BME associations were thriving. A number of senior positions at executive and board level were held by people from BME communities. I was a member of the next major enquiry in the 1990s which showed that there was a business case for promoting diversity as well as a moral one. Both the Housing Corporation and eventually the Audit Commission continued to promote equality and diversity in all of its forms.

As I look back to that time, I am sad to see that there are now probably fewer people from BME communities involved in housing than there were then and even fewer in senior positions. I ask myself why we have failed so spectacularly to continue to employ and promote people from BME communities. Both at board and executive level the number of BME people is far less than you would expect given the numbers in the UK, and certainly less than there were in the 1980s and 1990s.

We are going backwards. A recent survey run by Inside Housing in November 2017 showed that BME individuals made up only 4.5% of all executives in the sector, contrasting with the fact that 17% of social renting households in England in 2015/16 were headed by a non-white person. The survey also looked at board level and found only 50 BME board members out of 735 in total (or 6.8%), with 18 boards having no BME representation at all.

Other reports show that the number of people that we house from BME communities is reducing. In a report published last year the Chartered Institute of Housing showed that the housing sector is still predominantly male and pale. They made a number of recommendations to address this. I have recently been a member of the Housing and Migration Network which has found that housing associations are no longer providing homes for new immigrants as they once did. And since the Brexit vote the number of race hate crimes is increasing.

What about now?

Many groups and organisations including BME National and the Housing Diversity Network and others are still doing excellent work in this area. BME associations still exist, and are often among the best performers in the sector. Yet there is still too few BME leaders and BME communities still suffer discrimination in housing and other services.

This dearth of leaders is not due to a lack of good quality candidates. When I received an honorary doctorate from the University of Birmingham in 2009 a majority of those graduating were from BME communities. Many of these people do not join the housing sector and if they do very few seem to become leaders. I wonder why? If the lack of good quality candidates is not the reason for our failure the fault must lie elsewhere. Are we still guilty of discrimination? Or is there a lack of real commitment to address the issue? In my career I appointed a number of BME leaders to senior and chief executive roles. I also appointed BME chairs and non-executives. It was part of the culture of the organisations I worked for to do so. Is this culture lacking in some associations today? We have made progress in other areas of diversity but not here.


As we continue to fail I would recommend that we return to some of the successful policies of the past and take on some new ones:

  • I would introduce targets at executive and board level.
  • I would re-establish positive action programmes.
  • I would promote our work and housing as a career to the 1,000s of BME graduates who leave university each year.
  • I would make it a regulatory requirement for all housing associations to show real progress in this area.

Finally, there is an initiative in England called Leadership 2025. I would like to suggest establishing a Welsh version of this where every housing association signs up to deliver improvement in this area and are publicly held to account for success or failure. (The details are here: The Altair Review Online)

The housing association sector once had a proud record of promoting BME diversity at all levels. Unless we truly embed the issue into the culture of our organisations that record is in danger of becoming even more tarnished than it appears to be today.

I have spent the last 50 years campaigning for real progress in equality and diversity. I am proud of what we once achieved. But I am sad that we are now failing. My time is almost done. The evidence shows that my generation of leaders have failed on their latest watch. It is up to you, the next generation, to continue the struggle to deliver real and lasting equality in housing and beyond.

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