"We are looking at an explosion for the construction industry in the West Midlands," says Thompson, holding up his hands to illustrate the extent of the boom. "If the transfer goes ahead as planned in the autumn of 2002, we'll be looking at £200-250m worth of capital investment in the first 10 years." The deal will be the largest stock transfer a public authority has ever attempted. The non-profit-making trust would have about £3.75bn at its disposal, provided by central government and private investors, to renovate and build new homes over a 30-year period.
The 47-year-old leaped at the chance to mastermind the project when he joined the council last June. "I saw an opportunity to use my experiences with Hackney and knew it would be an exciting experience," he says. He spent seven years at the east London council, where he masterminded seven stock transfers.
One former colleague still remembers his determination: "We hadn't seen anything like it before. He reminded you of Tigger." During his time there, he managed to get two prime ministers – John Major and Tony Blair – to do a walkabout on the rebuilt Holly Street Estate. Both were drawn to Hackney's policy of calling on the private sector to aid ailing housing departments.
If tenants vote in favour of the Birmingham transfer early next year, it will be the next step in the city's transformation from concrete jungle to hip metropolis. The city centre has already seen massive change, with the demolition of the infamous Bull Ring and the creation of a buzzing commercial quarter around Brindleyplace.
You’ve got to keep tenants informed because ultimately you are talking about their homes
But Thompson warns the local industry to start preparing now to deal with overheating. He is already in talks with central government and local technical colleges to prepare for a jump in construction orders, and he is determined to keep as much business as possible in the area. "We are going into local colleges to make people aware of this and we are focusing on local employers to make sure their training programmes will be able to cope." As a rule, he says, local authorities must learn to become more intelligent employers. "In Birmingham, we accept that we need to train our procurement officers to make better clients. We are recruiting eight people into our development and maintenance department – it's important to ventilate the thinking of local government," he says mischievously.
This innovative approach does not stop at stock transfers. Earlier this month, the council completed the £375m privatisation of its repair and maintenance service – a move led by Thompson. The council's direct labour organisation was sold to two private companies, Accord and Serviceteam. UCATT criticised the move, fearing redundancies, but Thompson insists that it was "another arm of opportunity".
He believes that the deal will create huge economies of scale. "For instance, Accord and Serviceteam will be able to carry out large-scale window replacements – whereas six out of 10 times our building services desk has to say no to tenants requesting to have something repaired in their home because it isn't in the programme of repairs." Thompson decided early in his career that the private sector had a role to play in local authority housing and that residents could be responsive to new ideas. "You've got to keep tenants informed every step of the way because ultimately you are talking about their homes." Ultimately, he says, tenants don't care who they pay their rent to. "What they care about are the outcomes. To provide the right outcomes, you've got to focus on providing a good service." Thompson attributes his success to his ability to bridge the gap between ideas and making things happen. "I didn't work alone in Hackney. My role was to unlock other people's potential – to say this idea can actually happen," he says, his hands and arms waving around as he talks.
Personal effectsWho’s who in your family?
I am married to Ann, a civil servant, and I have three sons: Joseph 12; Daniel, 10; and Patrick, 9. We were chasing a daughter!
What car do you drive?
This will surprise you – I drive an H-reg Golf. I use public transport as much as I can and travel to work by train.
What do you do in your spare time?
On Sundays, I watch my kids play rugby. For myself, I love sailing.
What book are you reading at the moment?
One that I got for Christmas called Longitude by Dava Sobel. It’s about sailing and the passing of time – both great themes.