Working Lives

Property Surveying (1948-1990)

Location: Norwich

Bob started work in the city valuer’s office in Norwich in 1948. After a short time in the army he returned to the valuer’s office. He then worked for the railways before starting work at City Hall. His work was interesting and varied and included being involved with compulsory purchases, slum clearance, which came to be known as General Improvement Areas, and Right to Buy.

Early life

I was born in 1930 and started school in 1935. I was at the local council school for about three years until my father and mother thought I was getting into bad company and decided that I should go to a little Roman Catholic school where they all wore nice little caps. I was nine the month the war started and a lot of time was spent in and out of the air raid shelters. When I was 13 my father saw an article in the Evening News saying that the City of London School which had been evacuated to Marlborough during the war was to return to London. They were short on numbers and were looking for boys. I took the entrance examination and I passed. I’m glad I was placed in the science side of the school because I don’t think I would have managed languages or the Classics. The only time in my life that I felt over-dressed was when I went to that school. We had striped trousers, a waistcoat and a cap. I felt terribly out of place, but I was incredibly happy there. My dad said that he could afford to send me there for three years which was just enough to take the School Certificate. The majority of the students were intending to go on to university or medical school which meant another two or three years at the school to take the Higher Certificate. I had been told that the School Certificate meant nothing and it was the next exam that was the important one, but I had to leave after passing the School Certificate.

In this period the government were producing all sorts of publications and one of them was on surveying. I found out that I needed to go to an office with a chartered surveyor who would be prepared to sign my forms so that I could take the chartered surveyors examinations. When I was in my last term of school I came to Norwich and went to what was called the Youth Employment Office in those days and got a job at the city valuer’s office.

Starting work in Norwich in the city valuer’s office and studying

I started work on the 1st January 1948. My pay was £76 a year plus £26 a year cost of living allowance which meant I had two pounds a week. Now that was great. My father would not have been able to pay for me to stay at school, but I was now in a position where not only was I in an office where I could take my exams, but was actually earning money. There weren’t many universities offering courses in surveying. Cambridge did do a course, but I wouldn’t have got into Cambridge because I hadn’t completed Highers. The School Certificate was enough to become a student member and do a correspondence course. I worked five days – sometimes five and a half – a week and then studied on top.

Starting at the office I was a junior clerk. Just about everyone else in that office had been in the army. I was expecting that the major object was to train me to be a surveyor, but what they wanted was a junior clerk and when it came to it I wasn’t very good as a junior clerk. However, on the professional side, I was at a drawing board and I learned draftsmanship by tracing and then lettering up plans and by the end of the two years I’d become quite efficient. In the late 1940s and early 1950s there was still a lot of industry in Norwich. When the shoe factories Bally and Haldinsteins came out of work there were cyclists four abreast all coming along around St. Benedict’s Street and onto Dereham Road. You were always a little embarrassed when you went around a factory where there was all women working because they gave lads quite a rough time. The other thing about the factories I so clearly remember is that the toilets were always thick with tobacco smoke.

Studying by correspondence course was difficult because you didn’t have anybody to discuss it with and never knew how much to do or exactly what was wanted. I’d do page after page after page. Knowing what I do now, you only that little bit, that little bit and that little bit, but I was trying to do all of it. When I started work my handwriting was awful so the chief clerk took me aside and got a school pen with a school nib and ink and he taught me how to do copperplate writing for the books. But I was also doing this for my correspondence course work which was completely unnecessary and I wasted so much time. I also found some of the work impossible to actually understand. One of the subjects was Law of Contracts and Tort. ‘A tort is a civil wrong other than breach of contract’. This meant nothing. If someone had just told me that it meant something like trespass I would have understood, but this kind of guidance wasn’t given. They could have well-afforded to give me a day or half a day off to study or even help me a bit, but there was not a bit of it. I was due to be called up in September 1948, but asked for deferment so I could take my examinations. I failed the first year in 1949 and then I took it again in 1950 and passed.

In 1948 they had a Local Government Act which meant we were all being taken over by the Inland Revenue. We had to go to London for an interview and as I did quite well at the interview I got out of clerical staff and into the professional. I became a valuation assistant in rating. The 1st February 1950 we all moved over. They weren’t really geared up for us and suddenly had all the new re-valuations to do. I still had my two years in the army to do so, as the pay still wasn’t great, I thought I might as well do it then so I’d get the two years’ increment when I came back to work. I cancelled my deferment and joined the army.

Compared to what I was expected to do in the office, the army was like a holiday camp. I’d been three and a half years in the school corps. so I knew the foot and rifle drill. There was almost too much sport. One of the things they had was boxing. I had five fights in about ten days and I won the first, second, third and fourth and then the fifth one I was right out on my feet and I never wanted to enter the ring again. I thoroughly enjoyed the army. I got a lot of promotion and I came out as a sergeant after two years.

Returning from two years in the army, things had changed beyond recognition

While I’d been away the office had changed beyond all recognition. There were lots and lots more people working there. Some were qualified people, but there were also people who’d been vaguely in the building industry. We had to go all over the county and do surveys. I was on re-valuation which is determining the value of buildings and businesses. One of the first jobs I had to do was to look at a guest house somewhere in the fringe area. I did a full survey. It was on two floors and I did the chimney breast and the windows and the this and the that and lettered it all up, put the scale on, put a border round it. It took a lot of time and I thought I’d done a beautiful job. A couple of weeks later we had our office meeting and the governor got up and said, ‘I’ve just seen a plan’ and, interspersed with bad language in his broad Yorkshire accent, ‘We haven’t got the time to do that!’ and basically all he had wanted was a length and a breadth. That sort of destroyed me. We went out and we did virtually all the terraced houses in Norwich. One of the jobs I had to do was to check areas. That meant if one of the other people had done this great factory survey they would then put the areas down, page after page after page, and I would be required to check them. Sometimes the number two of the office who did a lot of the work would deliberately put the odd figure down wrong to try and trip me up. He could have helped me a great deal, but he chose not to.

I did get the promotion and got started, but I wasn’t doing the sort of work which I needed for the examinations and it wasn’t good training for a young surveyor. By this time I’d also met my wife Audrey who was studying nursing and wanted to be in London for her orthopaedics exams. It seemed a good time to change jobs. In 1955 I went into the railway where the work was more varied.

Working for the railways and avoiding getting involved with the Beeching closures

I tried to avoid getting involved with the selling off of the railway branch lines as, although it was fascinating from a work point of view, I didn’t agree with the principle. It was a government policy. Beeching is the name associated with making these closures, but Marples was the MP who employed him to do it. I much preferred the other work I was doing. Sometimes you’d got crossings which had been there since 1856 or something when it was quite busy, but in the 50s all you’d have was a load of cattle going across twice a day and sometimes you’d still got a man there 24 hours a day; ridiculous. If you could close a crossing you saved a lot of money and could potentially keep more lines open. This approach was taken on the East Suffolk line which is still open today. I feel it should have been done all over and I still regret it. As it was, we lost lines like the Midlands and Great Northern which is such a great shame. I left the railway because I didn’t want to carry on doing this sort of work.

When I finally I passed my Intermediate I thought I’d come back to Norwich where the work was even more varied. We had all the business properties, but then interspersed with that we’d have things like assessing damage from fires. Once I had to value a greenhouse full of cucumber.

Leaving the railway and returning to Norwich and working at City Hall, compulsory purchase and slum clearance

I finally qualified in about 1964. Reading were advertising as they were re-developing the city centre. I thought that building something new instead of the undertakers’ work I had had to do at the railway was what I wanted, but the job wasn’t actually the job that was advertised so I only stayed there a short time.

A job came up in the City Hall in Norwich and I thought I’d come back. Norwich had a lot of property and again the work was wonderfully varied and interesting. I was doing a lot of commercial lettings.

I started off doing general management, then went onto compulsory purchase. Most of this was slum clearance. From a legal point of view this was fascinating work as the case law was changing all the time. You would get butchers shops, ladies hairdressing shops, betting shops. It was interesting. How do you value something like a fish and chip shop? You have to know a bit about the trade. I remember once I gave a lift to someone who worked in a hairdresser and I pumped that girl dry for information about it. There would be case laws on, say, the butchers shop. I never did find one about a post office, but I found out that when people sold post offices they sold it for the salary. There were the odd hard cases. There was one case I remember where the lady had been left the house in her parents’ will. That meant she hadn’t bought it and that meant it was site value. Had she sold that house and bought the house next door she’d have got market value. Everyone knew it was wrong. The law of compulsory purchase was basically if you were an owner-occupier you got an owner-occupier supplement which brought it up to market value, but there was all sorts of little shades and bits and pieces.

In the late 60s slum clearance became what they called General Improvement Areas. The property bought was usually by agreement instead of compulsory purchase. We had a chap called Bill Burns who became the General Improvement Officer and he was very good. I enjoyed this work because I felt that we were saving an area as opposed to wiping it out and starting again. There was nothing structurally wrong with a lot of the properties which we’d had to demolish in slum clearance; they were just boarded up and in run-down areas. With the introduction of GIAs we were able to re-develop areas which are thriving now, like the Golden Triangle.

Becoming a chartered surveyor and working as an assistant estate surveyor for Norwich City Council.

In 1970 I became a chartered surveyor and in 1974 I got my last promotion. The job title was Assistant Estate Surveyor and it meant I was joint number two in the office, dealing with all matters to do with housing. I got involved with the purchase of Bowthorpe. There had been a particularly tricky Act of Parliament passed at that time which no one quite understood so we had to employ an agricultural valuer called Horrace Wilkin. He was a powerful man and a very hard worker. I did a lot of buying in the 70s. We bought a lot of private sector houses for the council and I was also buying a lot of houses for caring associations like Leeway and Mind. I had to take some time off work when I injured my back and had a lot of time to think about where my job was going. I knew then without being told that what was coming next was going to be assessing the rents for all the council houses in Norwich and I was right.

There were a lot of council houses in those days so lots of things to think about. I realised I had to get rid of the idea of doing a valuation for each house and instead do it like a sum based on capital value. I came up with a points system which reflected how much rent we needed. They didn’t want to distinguish between different estates, but things like the age of the property, whether it was a house or flat, whether it had been modernised, the number of bedrooms and whether it had central heating were taken into account and you could then assess the rent without having to actually go out and view the property. It simplified the whole system. I talked it over with my chief and he was very happy with it and I then had to introduce it to the members who accepted it. I got six temporary staff who were mostly graduates. You could tell by the questions they asked that they understood what we were trying to do and I liked working with them. When the rents had last been assessed many years ago, it was much more complicated and no one really understood it. The chap who’d done it before had retired, but there were still people about who remembered and they said that on the day the list was published there were queues right up St Giles Street. The day my system was introduced I passed City Hall and saw there were no queues so knew it must have gone down okay. Everyone just accepted it and it worked so I was pleased. One of the things I’d learned from my first boss in my first two years in the job was that if you can do it simple, do it simple.

The office environment was changing a lot. As well as more graduates, you started getting more women working. Previously the only woman in the office would have been the typist. I like to think over the years the office became a much more friendly place to work in. I think humour at work is absolutely essential and you’ve got to do little tricks to try and relieve the pressure. If my team had had a particularly hectic morning I’d say when we finished, ‘We’ve had a happy day, haven’t we?’ and they all fell about. The younger group in the office would socialise with each other outside work whereas for me, even though I had a good relationship with some people, my friends were always people I’d met through other things. There was some hierarchy in that no one really fraternised with the councillors. The technology had also changed. The basics of the actual surveying – going round a house and doing a quick sketch and a little report on the condition – hadn’t really altered, but the introduction of word processors made a big difference. I would do a report and if anything needed changing at any stage it didn’t really matter as the typist could re-word it or move it around much more easily. Computers were just coming in with the introduction of the Housing Act which made it much easier as you were able to get all the details of a property – when it was built, how many bedrooms and so on – on the computer. I do feel that computers have had a negative impact on the office environment too though. Having to physically go upstairs to speak to an engineer about something, for example, was good and my boss had a great management style where he would wander around and check everything was okay or suggest reading up on certain things. The introduction of computers and email put a stop to these kind of interactions.

Introduction of Right to Buy in the early 1980s

The next big job was the Right to Buy in the early 80s. I was very much in the hot seat. I still feel it shouldn’t have been that just about anyone living in a council house could buy it. Those properties were doing a good job. I can always remember one councillor – Councillor Pratt – saying how after he was demobilised from the RAF in 1946 the city council gave him a house. He had been thankful for that ever since and when he was gone he wanted his house to go to someone in the same need that he had been in. The Labour council in Norwich did not want to sell off the council houses so we were slower to start than some areas. Margaret Thatcher came to Norwich and said that she wanted to go and see the first council house that had been sold to the tenant. Well, we hadn’t sold any and the wrath of God came down on us. We had what’s known as Intervention and we had a man from the Security of State come to the office. We had to do it and do it we did. Each month I’d go to the committee with a list of properties that we valued and that was it. One thing I remember is many years later a new girl in the office asked about a book she’d found detailing the selling of the council properties when we were in Intervention. I said to her, ‘I want you to draw a line under there and write “This work is no longer being done by my authority” and I will sign my name’.

I liked people to ask me these kind of questions. I didn’t always know the answer straight away, but I would find out. When I started work, I remember doing the filing and I said, ‘Why do we have five copies of each letter to file?’. They had a wonderful answer to that: ‘We’re not going to change it for you. We’ve always had five copies and five copies we’re going to have’. I didn’t want to change the system though, just to understand it. I’ve been in committee or at a meeting where someone has asked a question and you realise that for the last hour they’ve had no appreciation at all of anything that’s gone on and that can be a mistake. I learned to always let people ask questions and to always ask them and answer them myself too.

By about 1987 I realised that I was coasting at work. Having banded all the council housing and then sold much of it off, there wasn’t much happening and no sign of this changing. It was all very pleasant, but not very stimulating. There was a young man in the office who was under me who I could see felt the same. I knew he’d have gone so I suggested ‘doing a sideways’ and taking him with me. It was a good idea, but he only stayed a year and then he went off to Norwich Union. Then we had another chap replace him who hadn’t quite got the idea. I had been managing a team of eight, but by the end it was about four. By 1990 I was 60 and really I’d had enough, but I knew redundancies were coming and if I held out until then I’d get the salutatory redundancy and also my pension made up to what it would have been at 65 so it was well worth staying for. I’m on a good pension; a final salary pension. My salary progressed over the years as I rose up the ranks.

Retirement, teaching yoga and becoming a Freeman of the City of London

I didn’t find it hard to adjust when I retired. I was ready and the package we got was fantastic. I was teaching yoga until I was 85 which I think helped as it meant I not only met people, but still had people who needed my knowledge and expertise asking something of me which are probably the things people struggle with when they retire, especially people who had held the kind of positions I had. I have four children and seven grandchildren. Me and my wife had our holidays – walking in this country and visiting our children abroad – and a lot of local friends. There were lots and lots of things happening and so I really didn’t miss work at all. One of the things I’ve done since I retired is to become a Freeman of the City of London. It doesn’t really give me any special privileges, but having been a City of London boy it is nice to be a Freeman of the City of London.

None of my family have followed me into surveying. I thought they would all take up where I left off. My youngest son didn’t know what he wanted to do and I said, ‘Well, if you don’t know what to do, go to Reading and do the degree in estate management then if you decide you want to be an observer in the RAF you’ve got a degree and there you go. Having said that, if you do want to carry in on surveying…’. Well, he got there, but it didn’t work out as I hoped as while there he got all sorts of funny lefty ideas that the estate agents fixed the prices of houses and wouldn’t be convinced otherwise and he left there and ended up doing a course in media studies.

Looking back at my career, if I have any regrets, I wish I’d done the chartered auctioneer’s examination straight away. Quite frankly, what you want is the certificate on the wall and then you get all the experience you want, but you need that certificate on a wall and that was what I was so long in getting. And of course once I came back to Norwich I didn’t want to move again. It was too good living here, much too good. If I’d qualified earlier or moved away maybe I would have got further, but I got far enough.

Bob (b. 1930) talking to WISEArchive on 8th August 2016 in Norwich.

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