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The late Bob Kerslake left a strong legacy, but as those who knew and worked with him testify, one of the most prominent aspects were his efforts to ensure social housing survived a hostile time. Tim Clark reports

He worked six days a week, had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of communities and government, and held the top job in the civil service.

However, among his many talents, Lord Bob Kerslake also had an indelible impact on the social housing sector, especially during the decade between 2007 and 2017 when the entire housing tenure seemed unloved – and arguably under attack – from all sides of the political spectrum.

Taking time to digest the news of his passing in July this year, aged 68, Housing Digital spoke to former housing association professionals who had worked either with Kerslake during one of his many roles in the civil service, or interacted with him as a housing association chief.

The overarching theme that emerged from the conversations is the efforts Kerslake made to safeguard the sector.

Crunch time

Tony Stacey, former chief executive of South Yorkshire Housing Association (SYHA), said: “When Kerslake started with the Homes & Communities Agency (HCA) the credit crunch hit. From SYHA’s point of view we had over 100 unsold shared ownership properties, we were in terrible trouble.”

According to Stacey, the actions over those short few days – in his own words – “saved social housing”, or at least minimised the damage that could have been wrought by the financial meltdown.

“I managed to get in front of Bob and explain that he had to help us out here, otherwise the whole social housing sector could be in trouble, and he immediately got it,” Stacey added.

“He understood the dilemma, and the potential impact a number of housing associations going down would have on the economy at a time when the housing markets were in the doldrums, and construction companies were struggling.”

According to Stacey, funding was made available at short notice to help associations in need, and keep the entities going through the difficult period.

The idea that housing associations provided a counter-cyclical input into the economy is well known within housing circles, but arguably less so in government.

The HCA’s role during the financial crisis allowed a larger proportion of social landlords to weather the financial storm than there may have been otherwise.


Another intervention from Kerslake came during the early years of the coalition government.

According to one housing association chief executive (who wished not to be named), as head of the civil service, Kerslake managed to “save social housing” during one particularly tricky period when then prime minister, David Cameron, his chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, and company were running the rule over public spending.

“At the time austerity was being thought through and in the comprehensive spending review, one weekend the amount of money for affordable housing was zero,” they said.

“He [Kerslake] essentially invented the AR [affordable rent] programme with cross subsidy from existing stock, and that idea worked very well with Greg Clark and Grant Shapps, and a rescue programme was essentially put together to enable social housing development to keep going.

“There was a famous cover from Inside Housing at the time which said ‘The Death of Social Housing, 1945-2010’ with George Osborne on it. If it hadn’t been for Bob, that would have happened.”

They added: “Cameron wasn’t interested in generation rent, and at one point David Cameron and co turned around and said: ‘Well, you’re single handedly resisting government policy…’

“Thank god he [Kerslake] was there, especially during the coalition, as it could have been a whole lot worse. Bob effectively kept everything going until the pendulum swung back the other way with Theresa May in 2017.”

Real and genuine

For Kerslake, successfully navigating the perils and pitfalls of government policy at Number 10 or the Cabinet Office were based on decades of experience, at all levels of government, and local government.

Many remember Kerslake for his time at regional or local level, and the cumulative impact he had on both communities and people’s careers.

Tom Murtha, former chief executive of Midland Heart housing association, said: “I worked with him when I was a chief executive. I think that the commitment he had to social housing was real and genuine.

“I think it was important to have someone of that stature fighting your corner. From his time in Sheffield he took those experiences, that commitment, and those values into central government.

“You have to say that during the last 25 years he did more to promote social housing than anyone I know. I am full of admiration for what he managed to do, and there’s not many public servants I would say that about, to be honest.”

In 1997 Kerslake moved from his role as chief executive at the London Borough of Hounslow to become chief executive of Sheffield Council. There he led the regeneration of the city centre, including the Winter Gardens, Station Gateway, Millennium Square, and Peace Gardens.

One scheme in particular, however , has been recognised for its impact on the city. In 2004 Urban Splash acquired the then run-down Park Hill flats housing estate and, working with Kerslake, rejuvenated the estate.

The estate was described as one of the most maligned in the country, and with minimal public funding, the council and the developer worked together to turn it around.

Not afraid to learn from mistakes

His work during that time had an impact on a fellow housing professional John Clark.

Speaking to Housing Digital earlier this year, prior to Kerslake’s passing, Clark remembered how he was convinced by his colleague to take on the role in charge of the New Deal for Communities in Sheffield.

John Clark, CEO, Plymouth Community HomesJohn Clark, CEO, Plymouth Community Homes
John Clark. Image credit: Plymouth Community Homes

“Bob Kerslake’s view was to get on with this, and learn from the mistakes that we make, and build on the good things that we build on,” he said.

“When I went to Sheffield, it had kind of stagnated for the first two and a half to three years [of the scheme]. They had had three chief executives before me, it was quite a challenging, very diverse community, and people were almost fearful of doing something for doing the wrong thing.”

The idea that trying and learning from mistakes rather than being fearful of failure, became embedded in Clark following his time in Sheffield, and is a characteristic he took to Plymouth Community Homes that served him well during his tenure as chief executive of the group, especially during Covid.

Sixth sense

Others have highlighted Kerslake’s almost sixth sense when it came to the holistic approach to public services.

“I think he understood the structures of society,” said Sinead Butters, chief executive of Aspire Housing Group.

“He had worked through all government structures and different types of organisations, and he knew how the pieces fitted together.”

Stacey agrees. “I’ve never come across the local authority chief executive who understood all the different elements of the council’s role in the way that he did, and was able to completely join them up,” he said.

Butters recalls how Kerslake worked with her when she was head of PlaceShapers, a national network of place-based housing associations.

Although the body itself isn’t on the same level as a government department, or a major organisation such as the Chartered Institute for Housing, Kerslake gave his time freely.

“I think it gave us a bit of credibility, to be honest, that someone of his stature and gravitas was recognising and supportive of us as a network,” she added. That effort was not only reserved for PlaceShapers, but the industry as a whole.

In his later years, Kerslake sought to highlight the role of housing in people’s health, promoting the idea that upgrading people’s homes to ensure they have independent living would take the strain off the NHS, especially in an ageing society.

The decision may have been influenced by his role as chair of King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, one of a number of chairman posts he would take on.

However, he never lost the ability to focus on housing whenever he could, working with Peabody (again as chair) and also chair of Be First, a private development company owned by Barking & Dagenham council.

Whether anyone else will take on the mantle for social housing, and wield the giant cogs of government in the direction of the sector, remains to be seen, however Kerslake has, if anything, shown what can be done.

Murtha added: “I think that is his legacy: The impact he had over a period of time, which meant that the sector and social housing didn’t go off the agenda.”

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