The furious commitment of Chris Holmes

Originally posted on December 21 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

When Chris Holmes died this time last year we lost one of our most passionate advocates for better housing and against homelessness

A collection of essays in his memory published today reflects on an extraordinary career that spanned the voluntary sector, local government, housing associations, co-operatives and community activism as well as roles advising central government and on housing commissions. That combination of campaigning, policy, politics and practice is rare enough in any career but the essays also reveal a bigger story (much of it new to me) about what can be achieved with the right mix of principles, purpose and pragmatism. ‘Furious commitment’ is what Jeremy Swain calls this ability to go beyond outrage and get things done.

It’s clear I was in very good company in being inspired by Chris over a long career in housing that, as Steve Hilditch points out, began (like most?) more by accident than design. Chris was living in Notting Hill at the height of the community campaigns of the 1960s and the story continues from there via North Islington Tenants Rights Project, Shelter, The Society for Co-operative Dwellings, East London Housing Association, the single homelessness charity CHAR, director of housing at Camden Council and Shelter again.

The essays are by people who knew Chris personally and professionally: Hattie Llewellyn-Davies, Nicola Bacon and Rachel O’Brien, Steve and Jeremy, Deborah Garvie, Anne Power and David Orr.  They cover some of the biggest issues that engaged Chris in his career: establishing the Holloway Tenant Co-operative in the 1970s; addressing rough sleeping at Camden; tackling temporary accommodation at Shelter; advising on the London housing crisis; regenerating communities; and setting out a new vision for housing.

My own contribution looks at the housing safety net then and now. Among the results of campaigning by Shelter and others in the early 2000s were a new emphasis on homelessness prevention and the introduction of a six-week legal limit on the use of bed and breakfast accommodation for families with children.

Last Thursday brought two powerful reminders of the current state of the safety net. The latest homelessness statistics show how these positive trends have sadly gone into reverse since 2011. There are now over 100,000 children in temporary accommodation, more than at any time since 2008, and 960 families with children in B&B for longer than six weeks, the highest since 2003. And as I blogged last week an independent evaluation of the bedroom tax showed the grim reality for tenants of a policy that has failed to achieve its aims.

The housing crisis is acute and it’s getting worse. However, as David Orr writes in the final essay, Chris would have been focussed on finding solutions rather than the scale of the crisis, believing that ‘achieving it will not be easy, but it is far better than doing nothing’.

So if you have some spare time over Christmas, do go here to read these essays and reflect not just on an inspirational life but on one that demonstrates why housing matters and how it can make a difference.

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