Date of Birth: 13 July 1942, Otley, West Yorkshire, UK
Birth Name: Christopher John Holmes
Nicknames: Chris Holmes
Few people can have worked in so many different parts of the housing sector as Chris Holmes, former director of Shelter, the housing and homeless charity, who has died aged 72 from respiratory failure. In each of many posts he demonstrated a passion for reform. Holmes helped to encourage both the public and politicians to be more sympathetic towards homelessness. He did this through powerfully argued messages about its causes and consequences. Even during the bleakest periods of the Thatcher era, he ensured affordable housing and homelessness remained on the political agenda.
Right to the end he liked to be known as a campaigner and activist. But he had also shown that he had the managerial skills to steer successfully one of London’s largest public housing departments Camden council’s through Conservative expenditure squeezes between 1990 and 1995.
It was his leadership of Shelter that brought him to national attention. In his seven years there, from 1995 to 2002, the charity’s income trebled to £30m, its staff increased to 500, and its 30 regional advice centres significantly expanded. Within his first year his political skills and persuasive arguments were already on show. A Conservative housing bill in 1995 would have restricted local councils to providing nothing more than temporary accommodation. He helped, with others, to shepherd an army of local authority associations, professional housing bodies, voluntary housing charities and hundreds of individuals to insist that crucial parts of the 1977 homeless persons act were restored.
The election of a Labour government in 1997 opened up new doors. Holmes was a member of the housing minister’s advisory group (1997-2002); a member of the social exclusion unit’s policy action team on housing (1998-2002); and chaired two separate housing commissions. The findings of the first, for London mayor Ken Livingstone in 2000 on how to increase “affordable homes”, were incorporated in the mayor’s strategic plan. The second commission, which he co-chaired with Richard Best, the director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, brought together two traditional antagonistic groups, private landlords and tenant organisations, to seek a new consensus on the private rental market. Not much emerged, but Holmes liked to try new things.
What did go well were two initiatives on homelessness. First came the social exclusions unit’s report on street homelessness in July 1998, which led to an extra £3.6bn to tackle disrepair in council housing stock. Even better was the 2002 Homelessness Act, in which Shelter was deeply involved and for which Holmes drew up a plan for his charity to advise and monitor local councils, which were required to draw up homelessness strategies. An independent audit of Shelter’s effectiveness commissioned by the charity at this time concluded that “virtually all respondents felt Shelter’s campaigning work was very dependent on Chris Holmes and his high-level relationships”.
Just five weeks later, he was dismissed by the charity’s trustees for alcohol problems. They tried to cover it up as a voluntary resignation, but Holmes ignored their “gagging order” and gave the Guardian the true story. It was not just alcohol but also the future direction of Shelter. He wanted to freeze plans for a new London office, relocate some London posts to the north and spend more on campaigns.
Holmes was born in Otley, West Yorkshire, where his love of walking was planted. His father, Gordon, was an insurance broker and a Methodist lay preacher. His mother, Doris (nee Waite), was the pillar of the local Methodist community. He attended Bradford grammar school between the ages of eight to 13 and then the Leys school, Cambridge. He gained an economics degree at Clare College, Cambridge, in 1964 and a postgraduate management diploma from Bradford university in 1966.
His entry into the housing sector came almost by accident. His first job was with John Laing, the construction group, in its personnel department, based in west London. He rented a home nearby in Notting Hill. It was the era of slum landlords, with the most notorious, Peter Rachman, based there. But the district had become a nursery for all manner of new community groups involving housing and legal aid. Holmes got sucked in too.
He moved from community work in Notting Hill in the late 1960s to community work in Islington, north London, then became director of North Islington housing rights project, and went on to Shelter as deputy director (1974-76). From there he became director of the Society for Co-operative Buildings for three years, director of East London housing association (1980-82), and then director of CHAR, the housing campaign for single people (1982-87). The next three years were spent with the priority estates project, which demonstrated how even the most run-down council estates can be turned round. The Camden and Shelter posts followed.
On leaving Shelter he became a research fellow at the IPPR thinktank, was appointed to the Youth Justice Board in 2003 and the Housing Corporation board in 2004. He persuaded the latter to help fund safer accommodation for the vulnerable clients of the former.
He wrote two books, A New Vision for Housing (2005), and a history of Notting Hill housing trust in 2006. His health began to deteriorate in 2008 and by the following year he was unable to walk. His wheelchair gave him a new cause to pursue: better access for disabled people.
Further health problems followed, but he was ably nursed by his wife, Hattie Llewelyn-Davies. They met in the early 80s when she was running the Piccadilly advice centre for homeless young people. They became partners and eventually married on his 60th birthday.