Right this minute the Communities England superagency is being assembled by a team of experts intent on producing a slick, smart regeneration powerhouse
The decision to create Communities England is, in my opinion, very good news for the building industry.
Last year I wrote here that if the way was clear for the creation of an integrated national housing and regeneration agency, English Partnerships (EP) and the Housing Corporation should hold hands and jump. Now ministers have given the green light and we are committed to making that leap.
I am certain that the government has made the right decision. Communities England will be the largest agency of its kind in Europe, investing about £4bn of public money each year to lever in more than £6bn of private investment in the physical fabric of settlements, urban and rural, large and small. By building a new organisation from first principles, we will enjoy a clean legislative base with a clearly defined toolkit of powers to help provide solutions for a wide range of projects. And by taking in some of the communities department’s delivery functions, Communities England will be able to provide a one-stop-shop for government and industry.
Although the Housing Corporation and EP have punched well above their weight, Communities England will be a genuine heavyweight. But despite the new agency’s size and range, the development industry need have no fear of being crowded out. Its mandate will be to contribute to sustainable economic growth, which means more opportunities for developers and contractors. It will be in the business of creating conditions where the private sector can share risks and provide its own solutions. This will involve making better use of public land, including working with councils to bring more local land to the marketplace.
This is an agency that will seek to cut red tape wherever possible. It will apply its funding powers in ways that meet the needs of the place and project rather than the other way round. It will seek to avoid the requirement that is too often placed on private sector partners to juggle several bidding processes and timetables.
By building an organisation from first principles, we will enjoy a clean legislative base with a clearly defined toolkit of powers
The increased opportunities for the private sector will come in different shapes. We will need enterprising partners as we work with councils and residents to tackle some of the worst remaining social housing estates, just as Berkeley Homes is partnering with EP and the corporation at the Ferrier Estate in Greenwich, south-east London. We will need to innovate in finding public–private solutions to some of our more intractable regeneration challenges, from north Liverpool to Canning Town in east London, Newcastle’s West End to Humberside. We have to find new ways of structuring long-term projects so that we achieve a balance of risk and reward that will attract private sector players committed to quality outcomes, based on excellence in design and construction, even from the unlikeliest starting positions. In other words, the agency will want to work with the industry to create sources of economic value.
And, of course, Communities England will be committed to housing growth. It will work closely with councils and regional assemblies to unlock land assets, promote strategic site opportunities and enable the planning system to deliver more. It will also work with the private sector partners to deliver more and better routes to low-cost home ownership.
In creating more opportunities for development, the new agency will be a demanding partner and client. It will drive efficient procurement based on open and integrated supply chains. It will also provide leadership on environmental standards as we climb the ladder provided by the Code for Sustainable Homes. The goal is carbon neutrality, driven by cost-effective technology, pursued in partnership with the private sector. Sharing risk in innovation will be another hallmark of Communities England.
All this lies ahead. It will take time to plan and legislate. The planning team will now begin to develop investment models and work up options for the toolkit that Communities England will need. At the same time, the existing organisations must keep their foot to the floor. Robust programmes that are really motoring are the best legacy we can bequeath Communities England.
So this is only the end of the beginning. The next phase, under Baroness Ford’s leadership, is about the planning and development of options that can be presented to the Communities England board and chief executive when they are appointed. The quality of the work we do over the next few months will help determine the strength of the foundations for the new agency. It’s a task we can’t wait to get stuck in to.
Jon Rouse is chief executive of the Housing Corporation