Obituary: Kay Blair, former chair of Scottish Housing Regulator

Kay Blair
Kay Blair
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Ann Kay Blair, former Chair of Scottish Housing Regulator, journalist and communications specialist. Born 12 April, 1953 in Edinburgh. Died 5 February 2018 in Edinburgh, aged 64

Though she once entertained the idea of becoming a female James Bond, Kay Blair rejected an approach to join the secret service, fearing the reality would be rather more staid desk job than glamorous spy role.

She certainly had the credentials to be of interest to the Ministry of Defence – a degree in Russian studies, covering language, economics, philosophy and politics, from St Andrews University and a Masters from the London School of Slavonic Studies. Neither was she the kind of woman who hankered after the Monday-Friday, nine-to-five grind.

But, in the event, her first job proved somewhat tame in comparison: she became a trainee tax inspector in London, not something she was keen to broadcast. Then, as someone who thrived on new challenges, when the Financial Times was looking for someone with Russian and economics, she joined the editorial staff where she remained for four years.

Following a return to Scotland she built an impressive CV, from business magazine editor and Scotsman columnist to businesswoman, non-executive director of a swathe of organisations and latterly the inaugural and energetic chair of the watchdog the Scottish Housing Regulator.

Born in Edinburgh to civil servant Ella Crawford and her husband Alan, who worked for the Scottish Office, she was raised in the city’s Polwarth area and attended James Gillespie’s High School for Girls where she was Dux.

After graduating from St Andrews in the 1970s she moved to London where, following her decision to leave the world of tax for journalism, she worked not only for the FT but was also involved in research and writing for the East European Information magazine and for a Penguin Special book on the Grunwick film processing factory dispute, when many migrant workers, backed by thousands of supporters, fought for union recognition.

Once north of the Border again she became well known in business circles as deputy editor of the magazine Scottish Business Insider and as a prolific writer on business matters for numerous publications. A fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, she wrote a weekly marketing column for The Scotsman for more than a decade. She also worked in marketing for the Scottish Development Agency and set up her own communications consultancy, Business Perceptions.

The catalyst for her career as a non-executive director was her involvement in an appeal to build a new hospital unit in Edinburgh. It led to a non-exec post with Edinburgh’s Sick Kids Foundation and Trust. From there she went on to hold similar positions with the Scottish Ambulance Service, the Legal Aid Board, the Court of St Andrews University, NHS 24 and NHS Lothian, serving as the latter’s Acute Committee chair.

She was also a non-executive director and honorary member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain and deputy chair of both the Financial Services Authority’s consumer panel and of the Insurance and Reinsurance stakeholder group of the Frankfurt-based European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority.

In 2011 she was appointed the first chair of the Scottish Housing Regulator, the watchdog for Scotland’s social landlords and local authority housing services. Her experience at the FSA, particularly during the banking crisis, served her well for her role in the social housing sector, where she was initially something of an unknown quantity. In an interview with Inside Housing in 2012, she said: “It was a good lesson for me because I think the regulator was very comfortable with the industry (before the credit crunch). I think light-touch regulation largely didn’t work.”

She travelled all over the country meeting landlords and tenants in a bid to ensure the regulatory regime effectively fulfilled the needs and safeguarded the interests of those at its heart. By the time she stepped down last August, after six years at the helm, she was regarded as wise and tenacious, a real force for good in the sector.

George Walker, who took over from her as regulator, said: “Kay was committed to ensuring Scottish social housing is the best it can be. In handing over to me her sage advice was ‘keep it all about the tenants’. A small lady but a huge force in stature and commitment.”

Outside her work she travelled all over the world, was a keen skier and a supporter of ski racing, a sport in which two of her children excelled as part of the British junior ski team.

Married to retired group marketing director William Blair since 1977, she is survived by him, their three children Neil, Penelope and Lyndsay, three grandchildren, her mother Ella and brother Alan.

ALISON SHAW