Lime Legal

In good faith

Published 01 May 2023

Robina Rafferty talks about 30 years of campaigning against homelessness and housing injustice. Interview by Bill Rashleigh

A year after Robina Rafferty started working in housing advice, she helped persuade Stephen Moss, then MP for the Isle of Wight, to take on a private member’s bill. That bill went on to become the groundbreaking Homeless Persons Act 1977. ‘It’s one of the things I feel proudest to have been associated with,’ says Rafferty, who is retiring this summer after a career in housing and homelessness that has spanned three decades. ‘We had a draft bill ready, but unless private members’ bills have support from government, they don’t get enough parliamentary time. The triumph was getting enough support from all political parties to enable it to become law.’

It was an auspicious start to a high profile career that has taken Rafferty from the commission that produced the influential Faith in the City report, to become founding chief executive of Housing Justice and director of its predecessor, the Catholic Housing Aid Centre (CHAS). On the way she co-founded the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Homelessness and Housing Need, and picked up an MBE for services to homeless people. But Rafferty nearly didn’t go into housing. ‘I was originally going to be an archive administrator,’ she says. Then a trip to India followed by a stint in international development led indirectly back to her own doorstep. ‘We would say to leaders in the third world, “What can we do to help?”, and they would say: “Get your own society right first. When you’ve got justice in your society, then come and help us.” Rafferty took the advice and got a job dispensing housing advice at CHAS.

Some 30 years later, she leaves Housing Justice, the progeny of a merger between CHAS and the Churches’ National Housing Coalition, at a time when homelessness has become a mainstream political concern – thanks in no small part to her contribution. ‘It is difficult to remember what things were like before 1977, when families could be split up and pregnant women could be told they wouldn’t be housed until their baby was born – in case it was stillborn and there would be no obligation to offer housing,’ she says. The effect that bad housing and homelessness has on the economy is now being recognised.’ It has been a long hard slog to win that recognition. Rafferty spent much of the 1980s fighting to keep the 1977 legislation on the statute books. By the time it became law, the winter of discontent was settling in, and the stage was set for a Conservative government. ‘Far from being able to extend the Bill we were having to fight off having it repealed,’ says Rafferty. ‘It came very close to being repealed more than once.’

The 1980s were a nadir for those combating homelessness, she recalls. ‘What I found most frustrating was dealing with a number of ministers who wouldn’t even accept that there was a problem. It was hugely frustrating: you spent all your precious time persuading them that there was a problem so there was no time left to talk about solutions.’ Not that all ministers adopted a hear-no-evil pose. ‘I enjoyed working with George Young; he was very committed and wonderful at trying to help people in housing difficulty tell their story.’ Rafferty reserves a particular place in hell for the right to buy, which she believes destroyed people’s perception of council housing. ‘When I started housing advice work you could say to people in need that this may not be your ideal home, but you’ve got a good chance of moving through the system. After right to buy there was virtually no movement in the system. You were having to say to people, it’s that or nothing. 'The repercussion was that the image of social housing got worse and worse. Right to buy fed an image that council housing was just flats piled on top of each other, and the loss of single family dwellings meant that it became equated with concentrations of poor people living in poverty and disaffection.’

This theme of disaffection was picked up and brought to public attention by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas. The Faith in the City report that the commission produced in 1985 had a massive impact. To some it was groundbreaking. To others – one unnamed minister – it was ‘Marxist’. Without actually using the term, the report provided the first real examination of social exclusion. ‘That’s what it was all about. It worried me that many people who should have known what we were talking about thought that the report was groundbreaking. We were talking about the exclusion of people simply because of where they lived. And local authorities didn’t know that.’ The report featured evidence from an estate in a rural diocese in Carlisle which local people called Bangladesh. ‘It was only when we looked further that we realised it was called Bangladesh not because Bangladeshis lived there, but because it was local people's idea of somewhere on the other side of the world. It signified exclusion, because no one wanted to live there.’

The report heard evidence from people who couldn’t get jobs or credit because of the estates they lived on, of children growing up stigmatised because of where they lived. Sounds familiar. But 20 years on Rafferty does feel that the inner cities are better places to live. ‘The problem of exclusion has been recognised so we’re not spending all our time trying to persuade decision-makers that it exists. We can now argue about whether things are being done fast enough. ‘We’re finally beginning to claw our way back again because more of what we're building is what people want to live in. The problem is that we’ve let it go so far there’s a real question about whether we are going to build fast enough to meet demand without creating another generation of people living in insecure temporary accommodation.’ Rafferty commends the current government for ‘having the courage’ to set targets. ‘Targets set people up to fail and the easiest thing is not to have any so you can’t be held to account. The government is going to fail from time to time but at least it shows where it is aiming.’ But she is critical of Labour’s failure to make housing a higher priority. ‘I’d like the government to complete the Barker analysis and say, yes, we believe that we have to build x number of homes a year.’ She also wants to see a proper definition of affordable housing. ‘I don’t minimise the problems of trying to define it – it’s a nightmare – but it would help us all if there was at least some attempt to reach a consensus so we knew the parameters we were supposed to be working within.’

And she wants a definition for minimum income. ‘The problem is no one wants to define it because it would be too expensive.’ Rafferty says she is leaving housing with only a few regrets. ‘One of the things I’m disappointed about is that I don’t think there is sufficient solidarity between different groups in the homelessness movement. There are more and more special interest groups and I don’t think there is sufficient identification in terms of saying these are issues for all of us. The danger is that it becomes easier for a cynical government to offer small crumbs to different groups. ‘I don’t think I’ve left things in order,’ she says, ‘but I think I’ve helped to make an impact. I’m very proud of what CHAS did in creating the concept of one-stop housing advice. That remains one of the biggest legacies of CHAS. I would hope is that Housing Justice will continue that legacy.’