The new chief executive of CABE tells Mark Leftly why his last three projects ran into criticism, why Sir Stuart Lipton was right to resign – and why Jon Rouse is such an easy act to follow.

LONG BEFORE HE got the job as the chief executive of CABE, Richard Simmons was asked by a reporter to recall the best piece of advice he’d ever been given. After reviewing the contents of his half-century on the planet, Simmons said it was “to wash your hands if you go to the toilet after chopping chillies”.

At a fringe meeting during the Labour Party conference a fortnight ago, Simmons lived up to this endearingly waggish image: he was all smiles, jokes and laughs as he sipped champagne and gently mocked a couple of worse-for-wear guests.

None of this humour is evident when he is behind his desk on the 16th floor of the Tower Building in Waterloo, however. Perhaps the former director of development and environment at Medway council has been infected by the spirit of Jon Rouse, his illustrious and (in public at least) serious-minded predecessor.

Simmons kicks off by going through the first report published under his regime – an audit of the quality of new homes in the South-east and east of England. “This is a very good report,” he says, unsurprisingly partisan. “There are some very good housing developments, but using a very objective set of criteria we found that there is so much that is mediocre and poor.”

To be precise, 17% of homes are good or very good and 83% are poor or average. Simmons, who has a PhD in urban history and economics, explains this result from the viewpoint of an economist. “I think it’s partly because of the marginal level of consumption of housing,” he says. “You don’t have as much choice as in other consumer goods. If you have to live in Reading then you have to live in Reading. It results in standardisation.”

When Simmons’ appointment was announced in June, few knew much about him; his name had never surfaced in speculation about who was in the running for the role. In fact, the word was that headhunters had been called in and were struggling to find suitable candidates to fill Rouse’s shoes. The result, some said, was that the chief executive had been plucked from obscurity.

But that’s not entirely fair. Simmons’ role at the Kent council placed him at the heart of the Thames Gateway, the most important area of urban growth in the country, and an area where CABE was working to establish a major role for itself. Prior to that he was chief executive of east London’s Dalston City Challenge, where he helped to promote the arts-led renaissance of Shoreditch and Hoxton, and to commission the award-winning Hackney Community College. Simmons also worked for the London Docklands Development Corporation, one of the key regeneration bodies of the past quarter of a century.

These three roles have one thing in common: each brought heavy criticism. Medway council failed to deliver the £100m Rochester Riverside scheme. The regeneration of Hoxton was recently attacked in a government-sponsored report for raising the price of housing to the extent that local people have been forced to leave. And the LDDC is consistently cited as a warning of how economic regeneration can lead to unequal outcomes for those involved, with the splendid towers of Canary Wharf surrounded by the grim deck-access estates of Canning Town and Poplar.

In defending his record, Simmons recovers some of his characteristic spirit. Rochester Riverside, he points out, was due to get the go-ahead when the European Union ruled that its Partnership Investment Programme funding was illegal. This money was to be used to decontaminate the land and so make the scheme stack up for developers; without this “gap funding”, the project was scuppered. What is more, the scheme may come back to life now that regional development agency funding has been secured.

The report into Hoxton, sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, was written by David Powell, an old LDDC colleague of Simmons. Which does not stop him from describing Powell’s conclusions as unfair. “The Hoxton area was a large area of dereliction,” he argues. “The problem was it had no property market to speak of. Some of the organisations that came on the back of that eventually moved when property prices rose. That’s the property market. It’s created 20,000 jobs and is a great place to be.”

Nearly all the housebuilders have good schemes. If people demand more, housebuilders will supply it

At the LDDC, Simmons worked on the regeneration of the Royal Docks. “English Heritage recently picked out that scheme as an exemplar of regeneration for the Sustainable Communities Plan,” he says.

The message is clear: Simmons wants to present himself as a proven winner in the regeneration market at a time when CABE’s push for design quality is positioning it at the heart of the government’s plans for housing growth.

As well as handling criticism well, Simmons plays an impressively straight bat to questions about dealing with the shadow of his predecessor. When the well-regarded Rouse left in May to head up the Housing Corporation, many were dismayed. He had brought CABE up since its birth, and in the process turned it into an acknowledged authority on design quality. Many potential successors are known to have been put off applying because they did not want to be the one after Rouse.

Simmons looks at the situation differently: “In some ways it makes the job easier as he built up such a high profile for the organisation. It’s a reasonably easy act to follow – for me the issue is consolidating and following through.”

But having built up that high profile, CABE now has much further to fall if things go wrong. A week after the appointment was announced, chairman Sir Stuart Lipton resigned ahead of the publication of an independent audit into the commission’s handling of conflicts of interest. Although the report found no wrongdoing, it made the fatal suggestion that projects from Lipton’s Stanhope could potentially been given an easy ride in design reviews. The media, particularly The Telegraph, went into a frenzy.

Simmons praises Lipton, noting his emotional speech at last month’s fifth anniversary party for the organisation. But he understands the auditors’ concerns: “I could see that there was potential for a very serious conflict of interest. It was just a perception, but these days that’s enough. He did a very honourable thing when he resigned for the good of the organisation.”

Simmons has no say in the appointment of Lipton’s successor, which CABE hopes to finalise before Christmas. But he certainly knows what type of person he wants: “Somebody who understands and believes in the design agenda, who is credible with government, because it is our funder, and who has good networks in the industry. As my experience is very much in government and regeneration, that would provide a complementary skills set. And we need a good communicator, who can go on the telly – I’m very keen that we should go beyond addressing just the professional audience.”

But it’s the professionals whom Simmons is talking to now. He is working up a strategy for CABE, and to help him do that he intends to meet the top 10 housebuilders by March. In fact, he seems very solicitous about their needs, which brings him back to that housing audit. “You’re going to do that CABE slams housebuilders bit aren’t you?” he chuckles. “Nearly all housebuilders have good schemes. If people demand more, housebuilders will supply it. I’m sure they would quite rightly point out that what they deliver is driven by what they see as the market.”

The response sums up the two sides of Simmons. As an industry source says: “He comes over as quite studious, thoughtful, not very excitable. He seems a bit cerebral.” But lurking underneath is the man whom a guest at the Labour fringe event described as “a really good laugh with a dry sense of humour”. Simmons will need both sides if he is to stamp his personality on an organisation that has grown up in the cult of Rouse.

Richard Simmons on …

What’s important is the result that gets built. I’m told by my commissioners that the next round of PFI hospitals will produce some good buildings.

The Department of Health
I have great hopes for our relationship with the NHS. Nurses, for example, are attracted by places with good design, so we can help there.

Targets for CABE
I’m in conversation with the government over the next month or so. It’s a bit unfair to set out targets before I’ve discussed them. I’ll have some news in two months’ time.

Meeting Jon Rouse
We’ve had a long conversation about CABE. He gave me some very useful pointers, as did Sir Stuart Lipton. He [Lipton] said he misses his involvement with CABE.

On his family
I live in Chatham with my wife and four kids. My eldest daughter is 22 and my youngest son is 14. Three of them are at university.

On English Heritage (Rouse is thought to have believed that a merger between EH and CABE was inevitable)
It’s a matter for the government. At the moment, we’ve both got quite a lot on our plates. When mergers happen, there’s a tendency for the organisations involved to focus on themselves and not their customers.