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Cause to celebrate

Inside Housing’s founding editor, Bill Randall, reflects on the magazine’s early scoops and campaigns

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Compared to today’s high-definition, four-colour model, the first edition of Inside Housing was a small black and white set flickering in the corner. It was produced in the attic of a shabby Belgravia mansion where the Institute of Housing was recovering from a near-death experience. Despite its Blue Peter cut-and-paste production methods (I still miss the intoxicating smell of a new tin of Cow Gum), the magazine was a success from the first eight-page issue.

Directly owned by the institute in those early days, Inside Housing was a weapon in the organisation’s campaigning, which centred largely on fighting Tory cuts in the housing programme. Indeed, housing took the biggest hit in Margaret Thatcher’s savage attack on public spending in the 1980s. Council house building stopped and the housing association programme was run down. The ‘sale of the century’, which would see more than 1.5 million irreplaceable council homes sold, began.

At the institute I ran the campaigns, looked after the publications and edited Inside Housing and the monthly magazine Housing, with the very able help of Donald Hirsch and Peter Mason. Most of the time it was great fun, seat-of-the-pants stuff, involving long interludes in the pub with contacts. Colleagues and institute members were hugely supportive.

It was a time of trying to break into silos to forge alliances to fight the cause. I sought, without luck, British Medical Association help for our campaign message that building healthy and warm homes takes pressure off the health service and the public purse. The Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians declined to support our arguments that building homes was the quickest way to put people back to work onsite and in the building supplies industry.

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities (now part of the Local Government Association) and Shelter were both scratchy about the whole idea of anybody else making the case for council housing. So we pretty much ploughed our own campaign furrow.

We argued constantly for all council house capital receipts to be recycled into new homes. In a report, Trends in high places, we made the case for better use of tower blocks - as student and sheltered housing, for example.

Alternative housing bill

We produced a housing bill, same size, typeface and paper, as a government bill.

Sent to ministers, MPs and peers, it contained the institute’s housing masterplan: 100,000 new social rented homes a year (70,000 built by local authorities); a new slum clearance programme; a renovation drive, action on empty homes and an inquiry into the condition of tower blocks (many of which were falling to bits and have since been knocked down).

The bill also argued that the government would claw back any money invested in social housing through income tax and national insurance paid, unemployment and other benefits not paid and VAT paid on white goods and furniture. In many ways, the proposals produced recently by the 2020 Group chaired by Kate Barker are very similar and a reminder of how much still remains to be done.

Lord Rippon, former Tory cabinet minster and a director of a leading construction company, launched the bill in the House of Lords. It sank almost without trace. Only two hacks turned up. The remainder altered course for an emergency House of Commons debate about the Belgrano, the Argentine battleship sunk by a British submarine during the Falklands War. Fortunately, we produced a Scottish bill, which was launched later in Edinburgh to nationwide coverage north of the border and saved the day.

A large brown envelope dropped on my desk while I was writing the bill. It contained a report prepared for the government by an eminent econometrics group confirming our view that building homes was the quickest way to put people back to work.

Ministers had suppressed the report. Angry researchers, hearing about our campaign, passed it on to me. It was extremely useful. Their research was rather better than anything we could manage with our limited resources.

Commuter spy

It was an extraordinary piece of luck, which gave us a story for the magazine as well as fuel for the campaign, and sits alongside another piece of luck that gave me a scoop. By chance I sat next to a very senior civil servant on a commuter train. I recognised him, but he had no idea who I was.

Bowler hat and neatly furled umbrella above him on the luggage rack and fountain pen in hand, he was editing a statement on the coming year’s housing investment programme to be made by the secretary of state for the environment the following week.

I made a mental note of the overall spend figure, and gave it to the redoubtable Bernard Crofton, then working for the Association of London Government.

He worked out the shape of the programme and estimated the miserable number of homes planned accurately enough for the Department of the Environment to hold an internal inquiry to trace the leak. It provided more grist for the campaign mill.

The constant crossover between campaigning and Inside Housing was a hallmark of our work at the time, and I am very glad to see the magazine return to its campaigning ways with its excellent work on empty homes. At a time when so many people need homes and the construction industry is in crisis, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the magazine’s first 25 years.

These days, Bill Randall is a housing writer and Green Party councillor

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