My interviewees at Inside Housing rarely have a backstory this interesting:
One day about 28 years ago, Andy Atkins was driven blindfolded to a house in Santiago, Chile. It was the middle of the Pinochet dictatorship and the young worker at the Chile Commission on Human Rights was there to collect video evidence from the underground resistance.
‘The door opened, and there were the four most wanted people in Chile,’ Mr Atkins recalls. ‘They had made an amazing pot of the local brew for me, they had cake. I was just this very young human rights messenger really.’ Maria Antonieta Saa, ‘one of the most wanted women in Chile’, later to become a leading senator once democracy was restored, drove him back into town so he wouldn’t break the curfew imposed by the Pinochet regime, despite the risk of her being caught.
‘I asked, why are you doing this? [She said], “I’m not going to let them control my life.” That early experience, with people like that, doing such courageous things for their own country, shaped me.’
At 52, in a fashionable grey suit and expensive-looking shoes, sipping an Earl Grey tea, Mr Atkins seems a million miles away from that risk-taking human rights activist of the 1980s. We meet amid the modern comforts of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, around the corner from London’s Savoy hotel.
But it would be a mistake to judge Mr Atkins by appearances. Despite the more genteel surroundings, this is a man who has kept that early passion for change through his career – and used it to good effect.