Duncan Innes, the director of English Partnerships, is seen as John Prescott's enforcer for the all-important task of building houses in the South-east. But it would be difficult to imagine a more mild-mannered Dirty Harry, as we found out.
Duncan Innes, English Partnership's southern director and the weight behind John Prescott's housing drive in the region, throws his head back and laughs at Building's question. It is based on a rumour that has been doing the rounds for a while, but there is no substance to it, he insists. Playing hardball, huh? We'll see about that … The suggestion put to him was whether English Partnerships was looking for a site for a new town in the South-east to satisfy the government's yawning appetite for housing growth. And that was just the juiciest of a number of rumours about EP's plans, particularly in light of the agency's landbuying activities. So far this year it has acquired four sites for the London-wide Initiative, which aims to provide homes for key workers (see "What is the London-wide Initiative?", overleaf), as well as the RAF staff college site at Bracknell in Berkshire. It snapped this up after private housebuilders had bid for it, generating fears among the housebuilding community that EP the cop had turned crooked.

"I can understand why Bracknell caused comment," Innes says, his tough-guy demeanour vanishing as he sits forward, eager to talk about the subject so that he can allay fears. "Within months we will be looking for a partner. Bracknell's a very good example of something that supports government objectives of getting community infrastructure and the key worker housing in place. But we can't do it alone."

The fact that EP has become a talking point is indicative of its increasing status. A week last Wednesday, EP emerged as a key player in the taking over of 100 NHS sites, to be used to build 15,000 homes. This increase is all the more noteworthy because three years ago EP was the target of much criticism in the regeneration community, and a government review confined its remit to urban regeneration and strategic sites. That was before deputy prime minister John Prescott launched the sustainable communities plan and cast EP in the role of chief delivery boy.

In the South where housing growth, affordability and regeneration are prime concerns, Innes is Prescott's enforcer, although thankfully for housebuilders he has neither the look nor the tactics of Dirty Harry Callahan.

Slightly balding, bespectacled, and considered by those who deal with him to be open, approachable and fair, Innes actually comes across as much more the mild-mannered civil servant he almost is.

Most of his career has been spent in the public and quasi-public sector: with Bromley council, the London Docklands Development Corporation, the Millennium Commission and then EP. His only foray into the private sector was an eight-year spell with developer Countryside Properties.

We want more and better. A well-designed house will allow people to live in it longer, producing savings

That career has given Innes an opportunity to see, and participate in, the evolution in understanding of the delicate process of regeneration. "We've now adopted the maxim that prevention is better than cure, and design is at the top of the agenda," he says. The thinking has shifted away from creating employment, to recognising that high quality housing in a mixed-use context can be a regenerator in its own right.

But Innes adds that housing itself isn't "about bricks and statistics, it's about people". At the LDDC, where his job was to sell housing land to developers, he says he worked hard to generate income. "In EP we do that but we also look at what that return could be in community benefits and infrastructure to allow for growth and futureproofing."

EP's raw material to do that is its land: the strategic sites in Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire and elsewhere, the millennium communities, surplus public sector land, and sites it is acquiring, such as those being assembled for the London-wide Initiative. But the sustainable communities plan demands more than unit numbers; those bidding for EP sites have to meet its demands for BRE's Eco Homes environmental measurement standard, high affordable housing levels and other enhancements.

"We want more and better," is how Innes sums it up. "A well-designed house with intelligent features will allow people to live in it longer before needing long-term care, which could produce savings to the health service."

Such homes cost more to build, but Innes is unapologetic. "EP insists on an Eco-Homes rating of 'very good' for its sites and 'excellent' for millennium communities. There could be a 10% additional cost. That is a bill that investor developers like housing associations are happy to pay, because they need to consider whole-life costs. Private housebuilders do not have that concern. The whole system is geared to housebuilders building their housing and then walking away – but there is far more to regeneration."

EP is therefore encouraging different types of developers to bid for sites. It has appointed teams made up of housebuilders and housing associations, used the platform of the MIPIM property show in Cannes, to try to attract international interest in two sites in Milton Keynes. Innes also says he likes the idea of having a housebuilder form a joint venture with a utilities supplier.

It is already a given that the 3500-home pilot development contract up for grabs under the London-wide Initiative will go to a consortium, and its players may not necessarily include big names. "It would be good to increase the housebuilders working in London," says Innes. "There are very few there now."

EP's brief leaves it to bidders to come up with a financial model for the 2000 key worker homes it wants under the pilot scheme. "One of the interesting things will be how to capture the value of the homes. We want to keep the properties, but allow people in it to share in the uplift in value," says Innes.

The whole system is geared to housebuilders building their housing and then walking away – but there is far more to regeneration

Feedback from the development industry has been positive. "It will allow a consortium to think longer term. The numbers remove the uncertainties of the housebuilding business. We are looking for dedicated project teams that will learn from this."

Since the government review, EP has been concentrating on fewer, larger projects, but those have always been central to Innes' workload, as he joined the agency seven years ago to take charge of Greenwich Millennium Village and subsequently ran the millennium communities programme.

The pioneering communities have been an education process in themselves. "I learned more about waste reduction than I wanted to know. I learned a lot about procurement, that it's wrong to come up with a masterplan, then go to the market and expect housebuilders to come up with a detailed design and a financial bid in a short time. It is better to go through a more collaborative process."

Innes says that a second lesson has been how to raise standards and keep the housebuilding industry on side. "Incremental improvements in performance are more important than step change," he explains.

"At Greenwich Millennium Village, the standards were rigorous right from the start.