Meet Jon Rouse, the new chief executive of CABE: bureaucrat, scuba diver and Kylie Minogue fan.
Jon Rouse was full of admiration as he watched the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics last month. Not because the Australians had pulled off a major feat of urban regeneration at Homebush Bay; rather, because he has a soft spot for Kylie Minogue.

"There's just something about her," he says in his soft Yorkshire tones. "This little lady who's five foot nothing and who's willing to keep reinventing herself. Every time they knock her down, she just gets back up again. When I saw her in the parade at the Sydney Olympics, singing Abba's Dancing Queen in a pink tutu, I just thought, go for it girl!"

You might not expect Rouse to venerate an Australian pop diva. Bespectacled, goatee-bearded and balding, he has an air of seriousness that makes him look older than his 32 years. "He's a bit of a suit, bless his heart," says a former colleague. "He's very northern, very blunt." His appearance perhaps reflects a career spent in academia, quangos and government departments, but Rouse, who became the first chief executive of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment at the beginning of the month, is not your average civil servant.

A qualified scuba diver, keen footballer and avid hill walker, Rouse's leisure activities are more those you'd expect of someone his age. He counts himself as a voracious reader of the New Musical Express, and he sings and plays saxophone in a cover-versions rock band. "We do Beatles numbers, some Oasis, a couple of Blur," he explains. "The band is named after the spaceship in Star Wars that Luke Skywalker blew up – Red Five – which is a bit stupid because there are six of us."

His professional and private lives collided at his last gig when, just as he was about to go on stage, he spotted a woman in the audience whom he had just interviewed for a job at CABE. "It was pretty embarrassing really, because we hadn't told her she hadn't got it. I didn't know what to do. So I slipped out into the audience to tell her she hadn't got the job and explain why. Then I just went back on stage and started singing."

Although he has worked as a bureaucrat for much of his career, Rouse is still one of the lads. He gives a dry chuckle as he recalls knocking over a glass of wine at a meeting with the Housebuilders' Federation at the Ritz recently –"I was completely jet lagged!" he protests. And he giggles huskily when he inadvertently describes CABE's role as that of a "headbanger".

Yet he also has a ferocious intellect. Last month he presented a paper at the RIBA explaining the economics of bespoke architecture: it was littered with phrases such as "fuzzy logic", "asset specificity" and "analytical hierarchy process", and went right over the heads of many in the audience.

Rouse joins CABE at a time when architecture and design are enjoying unprecedented political backing. Under the chairmanship of Sir Stuart Lipton, the year-old CABE has made astonishing headway, persuading government departments to appoint design champions, getting the Treasury to rewrite private finance initiative rules and, most recently, organising Tony Blair's No 10 reception in honour of the architectural profession.

He describes the evening with the Blairs – which took place during Rouse's first week in office – as a milestone. "We had the prime minister of the country saying, 'I care about what public buildings look like, because they have a profound effect on the people who use and occupy them'," he says. "The room was full of people nodding who a year ago would have been shaking their heads."

At government level, it appears, CABE has won the argument that investing in good design pays off. Rouse will now target ground-level organisations – such as local planning authorities, developers and construction firms – where he fears the message has yet to penetrate.

One of Rouse's key ambitions is to find new models for housing schemes that satisfy the Egan agenda as well as CABE's design imperatives. CABE plans to team up with major volume housebuilders and the Movement for Innovation to set up a series of demonstration projects. "We've got a very good dialogue with the housebuilders and we need to develop that," he says.

Rouse traces his interest in the built environment to his childhood in Yorkshire, where he witnessed the agonising death of once-great industries. "The early 1970s in Bradford was an extraordinary time. You saw mills closing down, buildings becoming derelict, the trolley system being taken out of the infrastructure. You saw an urban form disintegrate. Even as a young child you had an appreciation that something was changing." The family then moved to Barnsley, where the mining industry was going through a similar decline. In his class at school, Rouse, whose father was a childcare specialist and whose mother ran a crèche, was one of only three children whose families did not depend on the pits.

After a law degree at Manchester, where he specialised in planning and environmental law, Rouse joined the civil service's fast-track training scheme and worked for a spell at the Department of the Environment. But he was an unwilling bureaucrat. "I found it an incredibly frustrating environment in which to work. I hated the bureaucracy and the hierarchy. It erodes the soul."

A string of civil service jobs followed, including a year as private secretary to David Curry, Conservative minister for housing, local government and regeneration, and three years at regeneration quango English Partnerships, where he rose to policy and communications manager. He slipped in a part-time MA in urban policy while he was there.

Then, in 1998, he was hand-picked to serve as secretary to Lord Rogers' urban taskforce where, as he puts it, he had to "goad the great and good to produce the report". Rouse co-ordinated the research team and wrote the landmark Towards an Urban Renaissance virtually single-handedly, almost killing himself in the process.

"The greatest achievement of the taskforce was not the report but that I didn't get divorced," he says. "It was written over three months without a day off – on Saturdays, Sundays and bank holidays – from eight in the morning to nine at night. It took me six months to recover."

After that he needed a break, he says, but

instead of taking a holiday he disappeared off to Nottingham University to do an MBA in finance, not knowing if he ever wanted to work in regeneration again. The course introduced him to the world of financial markets, venture capital, international exchange and commodities. "We never talked about urban regeneration the whole year," he says.

Pondering a career in a City finance house as his next move, he was instead whisked back into regeneration at the personal behest of Sir Stuart Lipton. "Why CABE? Simple really. Stuart phoned me up and persuaded me," he explains. That was in March; Lipton was prepared to wait six months while Rouse finished his course.

Looking back on his frantic dash from taskforce to university to CABE, Rouse admits to being something of a junkie for new challenges. "It's probably down to a deep sense of insecurity, of needing to prove myself time and time again. If I finish something I never take the time to pat myself on the back and celebrate that we've completed something successfully."

Rouse is aware of how he comes across to other people: "I think others would describe me as serious, which is strange, because I don't see myself as a serious person. The persona that other people see is probably different."

Personal effects

Who’s in your family? I married Helen, an occupational therapist, nine years ago. My sister is an English teacher in Frankfurt and my brother works with people with serious physical difficulties. Where do you live? Epsom, Surrey. It’s not a bad example of a suburban town functioning pretty well. The centre is excellent, sufficiently dense, and has a sensitively designed shopping centre. What do you do on the weekends? I’m a big hill walker. When I was at Nottingham, we spent every weekend in the Peak District, traipsing through Edale. Now we go walking on the North and South Downs and in the New Forest. What’s your favourite restaurant? I hate posh restaurants. My favourite is fish restaurant Livebait, because it’s fun. You’re really close to your neighbours and it’s really messy. You have to tear up crabs and lobsters.