Seasoned reformer

The ever-increasing level of inequality in the housing market is the latest campaign issue to seize the attention of reformer Adam Sampson, as Huw Morris discovers.

Adam Sampson has made a career out of fighting injustice. Even his gap year before attending the University of Oxford was spent working in a night shelter in Liverpool. During his years working in the criminal justice system he acted as probation officer for Winston Silcott, wrongly convicted of murdering a police officer during a riot on the Broadwater Farm estate in north London in 1985.

Sampson is a rare example of someone whose experience ranges from research, policy-making and government through to lobbying, campaigning and front-line casework. His experience on the Silcott case led him to join the Prison Reform Trust as a penal campaigner. He worked at the Home Office under Michael Howard to establish the Office of the Prisons Ombudsman and then spent five years as chief executive of drugs charity Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust (RAPt).

His career moved full circle in January 2003 when he became director of housing charity Shelter. "I have dealt with types of client throughout my career who have something in common. There is a group of individuals on the margins of society who commit crime, misuse drugs or alcohol and who are homeless," he says. "At Shelter, a lot of this comes together. Two-thirds of our staff deliver services, yet we are better known for campaigning."

The charity was launched in the aftermath of Ken Loach's ground-breaking drama-documentary Cathy Come Home, which depicted the impact of poor housing, temporary accommodation and homelessness on a young family. Sampson stresses that every campaigning charity aims to make itself redundant by "solving the problem, not perpetuating it".

"We work as insiders and outsiders," he explains. "While publicly berating government for its inadequacies, we are working with officials behind the scenes. For campaigners, it is easier when a government is not doing what we want it do, as in a bizarre way we have an interest in things not getting better.

"The trap many campaigners fall into is to confuse headline-grabbing with effective campaigning. It's about changes to legislation and policy, not headlines or public support. But a campaigning charity cannot neglect its campaigning brand. We command attention from ministers because of the threat of us mobilising public opinion."

The latest injustice to provoke Sampson's ire is the UK's growing housing divide, which is now reaching Victorian proportions. Recent research published by Shelter revealed an unprecedented housing wealth gap that is damaging social mobility and undermining the economy. Ten years ago the price of an average house in London's Kensington, the UK's best-off area, would buy two houses in Leven in Fife, then the country's lowest-value area. Today it would buy 24.

Over the past decade, housing wealth in the most prosperous areas has increased 20 times faster than in the worst-off areas. In short, children born into poor families or areas today have few chances. Sampson is fascinated by the paradox that while the UK's housing crisis is privately acknowledged to be one of the most significant problems for the public, it still does not translate into being seen as a political matter.

"People cannot find anywhere adequate to live, get on the housing ladder, move to a two or three-bedroom home to accommodate a growing family or move to a different part of the country. Yet this is seen as the individual's problem. People fail to make the connection with political issues," he laments.

"People have forgotten that one of the fundamental responsibilities of government is to ensure that the citizens of this country are adequately housed. In the 1950s and 1960s there was competition between Labour and the Tories about who would build more homes. That does not happen today. The government does not see it as its responsibility to make sure that people are adequately housed."

The huge expansion in home ownership since the Second World War, coupled with the end of council house building, has led to the "privatisation of housing", Sampson argues. But the housing market that has emerged has failed to keep pace with demand and need. Shelter campaigns for the 360,000 families and one million children who live in cramped, unfit and bad housing. The charity is part of a coalition of groups pressing for more house building.

The coalition, which includes the RTPI, the Chartered Institute of Housing, the House Builders Federation, the National Housing Federation and the Town and Country Planning Association, was under fire from campaigners and environmentalists even before its launch. Sampson warns that it would be disastrous for the "two groups to get into trenches and snipe at each other" and believes they can agree about building more affordable homes.

Shelter is particularly concerned about the housing crisis engulfing the countryside. It wants local authorities to double council tax for second home owners, arguing that homelessness in rural areas has increased by 30 per cent in the past four years compared to 21 per cent in urban areas. Sampson is particularly angry at the thousands of second homes standing empty while homelessness continues its inexorable rise.

"There are plenty of villages that have become retirement or dormitory towns or where people have bought second homes and are not there to keep the community going. There are not enough children to sustain a school and not enough people around to sustain a pub or post office. It's condemning the countryside to a slow death," he complains.

The UK is facing two scenarios, he reasons. "The first is that we build without thought and care and do so quickly and cheaply. We have too many examples of appalling housing design and construction from the 1960s for us to be complacent. We could threaten the integrity of our most beautiful countryside and do serious damage to the environment and still fail to provide the right houses in the right areas with the right infrastructure. They will become the slums of the next 50 years.

"The second is that the worst version of knee-jerk nimbyism will win and we fail to build at all. That would not just be bad for the people we campaign for, it would also be bad for business, bad for public services because key workers cannot afford homes where they are needed and bad for the countryside."

CAREER DETAILS

Age: 44; Family: Married with two children

Education: Degree in classics, Brasenose College, University of Oxford, 1983.

Career: Junior dean, Brasenose College, 1986-87; probation officer, London, 1987-89; deputy director, Prison Reform Trust, 1989-94; assistant prisons ombudsman, Home Office, 1994-97; chief executive, RAPt, 1997-2002; director, Shelter, January 2003 to date.

Professional activities: Member of various government working parties, including the Government Task Force on Home Ownership; judge, Royal Institute of British Architects awards; fellow and member of advisory council, Royal Society for the Arts. Interests: Music, theatre, reading, sport.


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