James Caspell - Rising Star finalist 2014
Read the latest information on James and his campaign
Read James' blog 'Right time for housing' about his day at Shelter
Read James' responses to our Q&As
1. Describe yourself in 3 words
Passionate, principled, persistent.
2. Who in the housing world really inspires you and why?
I meet lots of community activists through my current job, who inspire me to help develop their neighbourhoods and improve the quality of housing. If I had to name just one person in Tower Hamlets, it would be Safia Jama, a THH resident, who tirelessly champions the needs of Somali women in the borough - and rightly keeps us on our toes!
More broadly, Michelle Reid is an inspirational speaker, and demonstrates the rare ability to captivate an audience whilst highlighting important issues facing the sector.
3. What is your favourite building and why?
In the UK, it would have to be Pellicci’s - a Grade-II listed greasy spoon on Bethnal Green Road, with a wood panelled art deco interior. There’s nothing quite like a full English washed down with a mug of proper tea, after an estate inspection on a freezing December morning.
In the world, it would be the Umayyed Mosque in Damascus, Syria. It’s not only one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve seen, but also the most tranquil - with a courtyard of cream coloured stone below a rectangle of perfect blue sky. You couldn’t get much more of a contrast to the hub-bub and turmoil of a city in civil war.
4. How did you get into housing?
I had always wanted to work in public or not-for-profit sectors. My dad and granddad had grown up in council housing, and I’ve always been passionate about promoting the positive role of social housing, rather than it being seen as a last resort.
I first got a job as a Housing Advisor in Barking and Dagenham in my gap year. Back then we did a bit of everything, so I did sign-ups, benefits assessments – and even fitted someone’s washing machine!
Since then I’ve worked in various front-line and strategic roles in different areas, and enjoy the opportunity to meet various challenges in the sector, and improve the quality of life for residents.
5. Which 5 people would you invite to your dinner party and why?
Nelson Mandela, Peter Tatchell, Aleksandra Kollonatai, Emily Wilding Davison and Paris Lees. All have selflessly fought for forms of equality before they were fashionable or widely accepted, and are people I hugely admire.
I love to cook, so they could expect some form of British-Arab fusion food – which occasionally turns out well!
6. Apart from being a Rising Star finalist, what has been the highlight of your career to date?
There have been a few, but one that stands out in Tower Hamlets was the ‘Somali Tenant Engagement Project’, working closely with 400 Somali households in the borough, primarily to reduce rent arrears and alleviate overcrowding.
Not only did we reduce the volume of rent arrears owed by 30%, but in the first three months we moved a number of chronically overcrowded families to larger properties, including one who had been unsuccessfully bidding to move for 18 years.
7. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“Fine words butter no parsnips”, as told by my history teacher at school, who was ironically called Mr Jolly. He was a brilliant teacher, though we rarely agreed on anything, including Right To Buy.
I think someone’s actions speak louder than their words, which is an approach I’ve tried to follow throughout my career
8. If you had three wishes, how would you use them?
Firstly, I’d abolish the bedroom tax, benefit cap and proposals to pay housing benefit directly to recipients via universal credit. All are proving – and will prove – disastrous for tenants and landlords, especially given tenant evictions are already at record levels.
Secondly, I’d abolish Right to Buy. Social housing is built for a reason, and until supply outstrips demand for social housing there is no justification to force local authorities to have their stock decimated at sub-market prices.
Thirdly, I’d introduce my policy idea for Rising Stars 2014 - Right to Rent. The opposite of right to buy, it would allow families who are struggling to pay their mortgage to transfer ownership into the social housing sector, and keep their home at an affordable level of rent.
9. What’s the best thing about your current job?
Working in the East End of London means I get to work with community groups and individuals from all over the world. Many have had the most extraordinary life experiences, and lived through significant events in history, including the Blitz, the Battle of Cable Street, and Bangladesh Liberation War to name just a few. There isn’t a day when I don’t learn something new, in terms of culture or language.
In the context of widespread anti-immigration rhetoric in relation to social housing, I particularly enjoy facilitating interculturalism, and promoting the many positives that migration has brought to the UK - not least financially.
10. If you are our Rising Star for 2014, how might your life have changed in 12 month’s time?
It may sound clichéd, but I’m more interested in how the sector as a whole can improve the quality of lives of others, specifically for millions in the UK that are denied adequate housing.
With around 1.7m households on social housing waiting lists in the UK, families are their having quality of life restricted through inadequate housing, affecting their health, employment and education.
If I can help the sector move housing higher up the political agenda to address these issues in the next 12 months, then I’ll be more than happy.
Is James your Rising Star? Vote now