A Proud Professor Shares His Supporting Communities Story

by Professor Paddy Gray


"Rising expectations meant that people were less prepared to accept substandard services. Groups were formed over a common cause because citizens felt powerless and excluded. Effective participation was prevented by local governments centralised administrative system of control and decision making."

This is a quote from Peter Shapely's book 'The Politics of Housing' referring to the growth of consumer action in the 1980s. At the same time, I was a young housing professional with the NIHE and was fortunate to be sent on a CIH qualification at the then new University of Ulster led by Professor Derek Birrell and a lot of the teaching was dedicated to the power of community action and involving residents. During the same time, research carried out in the Doury Road estate in Ballymena had led to the establishment of the Priority Estates Project (PEP) in 1983 and the rest is history. In my remaining time at NIHE, before I joined the University of Ulster at Magee, I worked on estate based strategies and linked both with PEP and the newly formed Tenant Participation Advisory Service (TPAS). The NIHE was keen to work closely with both groups.

Way back when! Paddy with a group of Housing graduates at Ulster University.

Way back when! Paddy with a group of Housing graduates at Ulster University.

I was able to bring this recently acquired experience to my new role as a lecturer in 1987 for a recently established degree in housing. I will always have fond memories of our first cohort who graduated in 1988 - one of whom now has a very senior role in Supporting Communities (you know who you are) and another is Chief Executive of the largest builder of social housing in the UK.

In my early days as a lecturer, one of my favourite topics was tenant participation making it central to my housing teaching. I remember students enjoyed exploring different models and there were many dissertations submitted on the topic. The Estate Action Project was established in 1988 and in 1991 it merged with TPAS to become the NI Tenants Action Project. At the time I had a great working relationship with Brian Holmes who was leading the new organisation and we had a number of student visits to the office. I watched the positive results of involving tenants at a difficult time in Northern Ireland when the troubles still existed. The emergence of the Housing Community Network (HCN) and the Central Housing Forum are a testament to the great work that was being done at local and national levels. I have been involved with many housing organisations over the years across the UK, Ireland and further afield and the HCN is one of the best networks I have seen. I make a point of showcasing this model at many housing conferences across the world.

On Wednesday 6th of March 2019, I gave my last housing lecture to a group of postgraduate housing students after 31 years of teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels and producing over 1000 graduates, most of whom are now working in housing across the UK and Ireland and beyond in countries like the USA, Australia and Japan. I look back with pride at the calibre of these young people (many of whom are not so young now) and I can confidently say that all of them are improving lives. Whether they are chief executives, and many are, or working on the front line, they will be putting tenants first and that makes me proud.

Paddy looks on as recent graduate (and now a Supporting Communities Development Officer) Ryan Young opens the final Student Housing Conference last year.

Paddy looks on as recent graduate (and now a Supporting Communities Development Officer) Ryan Young opens the final Student Housing Conference last year.

One of our graduates, Colm McDaid, is now at the helm of Supporting Communities and from all accounts, he is providing excellent leadership supporting residents across Northern Ireland. One thing we introduced to the housing course as far back as 1999 was that students ran their own housing conference. This was a fantastic success and each year was as good as the last. We had our final conference in 2018 and I was delighted that Supporting Communities helped organise both the conference and the farewell dinner that evening.

Reflecting on my own housing journey and that of Supporting Communities it is interesting that both began at the same time. Technically I began my housing career in 1979 as VP Welfare Officer at the 'Poly' dealing with the many housing issues that students had. This was the same year the Doury Road pilot. Now we both have reached 40 years and we both are looking back to look forward and we are certainly not looking back in anger.

It has been an incredible time and I have met so many incredible people working in housing over the years, many of whom I can call close friends. Of course, we have had some laughs but I hope we have improved lives as well. It is important to remember that building houses is important but it is the building of lives around housing that is crucial. The work that Supporting Communities has done over the years is up there with the best. The organisation should be proud of its achievements which are now firmly embedded in the Tenant Participation Strategy 2015-2020.

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What’s your Supporting Communities story?

This year marks Supporting Communities’ 40th Anniversary since its first incarnation as a single project in Ballymena in 1979. To celebrate, we are taking a look back at the people and places that helped get us where we are today.

We hope everyone will get involved! Get in touch and tell us how Supporting Communities has impacted your own story.

Email healy@supportingcommunities.org or message us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram with your old photos and memorabilia.