We Can Be Heroes

Barry Marlow

The commercial head: social heart conversation isn’t easy. Anybody exploring this approach to the way the business is delivered will face dilemmas. Dilemmas where cultures clash. Dilemmas where beliefs and values are tested. Dilemmas where decisions are challenged and consequences re-defined. We all bring the past to our tables when we examine the way forward. This isn’t wrong, it’s normal. It’s what makes us who we are. But it shouldn’t restrict us from being what we want to be’

In this blog, Barry gives a very personal view of the impact of commercial thinking and social ambition.

1919 was memorable for two things.

First, that year’s housing legislation, or Addison Act, committed government funding for housing for the first time. Homes fit for heroes was the pledge. The impact was Subsidised housing. Council housing. Public housing. Social housing, as it has become. Political housing was born, Interference the undeniable consequence.

Born in 1919, in a 4-room terraced in Lancashire, was my father. Son of a publican, the war took him from the weaving sheds where he learned of the ways of command and control, them and us and the apprenticeship of political dogma.

By 1951, six years of marriage, three children and a period of living in an Anderson shelter, my parents moved into a brand new council house in my mother’s home village in north Essex. I was born in that house four years later, to be followed by three more siblings by 1962.

One of my two older sisters fell victim to the polio epidemic as a baby and never walked. I grew up thinking everyone had a sister who carried a label – then a ‘cripple’, later ‘handicapped’ and finally ‘disabled’. We referred to her as ‘Margaret’.

There were no ramps, handrails, hoists, wet rooms, alarms or other mobility apparatus. It was a council house. We were grateful. We were constantly reminded by the landlord just how grateful we should be. Every ten years or so people called painters slapped something called blue onto the front door. We knew the council had been. We couldn’t get in.

My father became frustrated at local unfairness, political inconsistency and the ways councils treated, or rather didn’t treat, hard-working tenants. He was elected to the parish council. The first council tenant ever to take such office. By trade he was an ‘ambulance man’ (today, a paramedic) working shifts in the infant NHS. He joined the GMWU (now GMB) union. He was soon assuming union status defending local people against bullies.

Within three years he stood for, and was elected to, the district council. He stood as an independent. He was continually dismayed at the political incorrectness in local government and wanted no party allegiance or collective voting behaviours. He knew his rights. He called them his beliefs, and stood by them.

Evenings at home included strings of people calling round. My father would take them into the front room to talk. I later realised that these people were begging him for preference for council housing. Imploring him for special treatment. They never succeeded. I sometimes listened at the door. I learned a lot.

One evening, in 1968, the policeman came. My mother cried. The ambulance crash. The broken neck. The weeks in hospital. The months and years recovering. The career ended.

Five children still at school. One disabled. No such thing as housing benefit. No major wage earner. Thank goodness he was a union man. How did my parents manage? How did they cope? I recently asked my mother. She says she can’t remember. I think she can, but won’t say.

I’m sure the new rent rebate system helped through the 1970’s and 1980’s. My father found a desk job. After 20 years a councillor, the parish and district paid him the highest compliment at the local election. No-one opposed him.

From my mother I get my head of hair and her patience. From my father I have inherited his qualities of fairness and a real sense of common. The combination is quite humbling. I feel able to deal with change in a measured way.

Despite my father’s traditional background and unerring integrity, his principles (that got him elected five times) were severely tested in 1987.

Many of the family had left home by then. My father newly retired. The council house a large parlour-type. It was decision time. Move to a bungalow? No favours, of course, no special priority or management move. And yes, they were offered.

The council called it ‘transfer’. Today – ‘down-sizing’. To my parents it was the rest of their lives.

How my father came to his decision, I’ll never know. He surely lost many sleeping hours. My elder brother was working and still at home. Just the three left. Most of us grown away. Some of us owner-occupiers. It was the 1980’s after all.

Council housing had changed and would never be the same again. My parents had changed and would never be the same again. They stopped looking back. What good does that do? See – I even sound like him.

An evening, in 1987, in the house of my birth, my father (the tenant) purchased the council house under the right to buy. He already knew what he was doing. The guilt of depriving the next generation of a parish asset was weighed heavily against the emotional attachment and investment of something we all called ‘home’. Turning his back on the intense political noise, he pulled on the handbrake of his principles and changed direction. He drove with both his head and his heart.

Within five years, the plan was executed. The new owners of the ex-council house sold it. Made a profit. Pocketed the surplus. And like any reputable social enterprise, dedicated the proceeds to the legacy.

My father died in 1996. The anniversary of his funeral is next week. He lived only five more years to see the benefits from his transaction impact on his bride of fifty-one years and pay-back some of the heartache of the desperate times.

Thanks to the council, my father had not only set up a home for his family but had become a property owner. Unthinkable from his cobbled-street heritage. He had seen traditional council housing develop, shift and connect itself to the aspirations of the people who lived there. Thanks to the extraordinary political ironies in the way council housing was operated, my father opted out. He looked forward.

My mother, now 93, is comfortable and warm. She wants for nothing. No siblings benefited from the sale. Her contented years, free of struggle, was bonus enough. They had even enjoyed a holiday abroad. Their first, ever.

I can thank my father for my sense of humour. And for his endless restlessness and curiosity. But most of all, his greatest legacy is the ability to see beyond the past; what had been. To accept historical context and meaning, learn from it and adapt it to changing perspectives in a diverse marketplace.

If my father was still here – and every day I wish he was – he would not thank me for looking back. What’s the bloody use? (he would say, in his northern tones).

One day I hope to inherit my father’s wisdom and courage. At a time of political and social pressure, principled dogma and a push for traditional entrenchment, his greatest achievement was the ambition of his family. Not the tenure.

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