The House Builders Federation may have softened its antagonistic approach to negotiations, says Elaine Knutt, but since president Robert Ashmead roared on to the scene on his Harley Davidson six months ago, you know it still has attitude.
The House Builders Federation has a castle turret as its logo, and traditionally matched it with a siege mentality. Enemies were on all sides. The environment, heritage and rural lobbies bombarded it with accusations that it wanted to despoil the green belt, and it responded by lobbing out complaints about the planning system. What it never seemed to notice was that the people it was aiming at – from journalists to ministers – had long ago learned to duck.

Six months ago, a new chief executive rode up on his Harley Davidson to lower the drawbridge. Robert Ashmead, a former lawyer and banker who was headhunted from the RICS, wants to make peace with the neighbours. "I think the agenda has turned around," he says. "The HBF is now an outward-looking organisation that wants to work with others to improve the lot of our members."

Ashmead says the new approach is a "three-voice strategy": a single voice representing everyone from the biggest housebuilder to the smallest, a strong voice based on research and rational argument and a fresh voice offering a change from the HBF's characteristic tantrums.

The HBF's makeover could not have come at a more crucial time. An HBF report released at the weekend revealed that south-east England had more households than homes – 1.2% more. The figure for London is 4%. The inevitable result of this imbalance is higher house price inflation, fewer teachers and nurses, less effective public services. A housebuilding lobby with a functioning political radar could capitalise on this causal chain to present itself as the government's ally and the public's friend.

Ashmead sees the HBF as edging its way towards the centre of the political stage. "It could turn into a real problem by the next general election. The housing market accounts for just 2.5% of GDP, but it exercises a disproportionate influence over the economy because of its impact on people's confidence. It's an industry that needs looking after."

Clearly, the HBF's three voices will be articulating many familiar points, and Ashmead's mission to polish up the public image will not interfere with his role as the housebuilders' cheerleader. Asked about the Housing Forum's second customer satisfaction survey, published in Building last month and showing negligible improvement on the first, Ashmead accentuates the positive. "There is general improvement, with 87% customer satisfaction. Without being complacent, I think we're moving in the right direction."

If you don’t participate, you automatically become an objector and are immediately wrong-footed

Ashmead, 49, may be fresh to the industry but he is an old hand at driving internal reorganisation (his last job was implementing the RICS' controversial Agenda for Change) and building external relations (as a former head of development agency Locate in Kent). He comes across as a manager rather than a visionary – his responses are delivered at dictation speed – and is less happy when invited to stray off message. Asked about his Harley Davidson, he offers: "It's a style statement, isn't it?"

His first specific challenge is to steer the HBF's response to last year's planning green paper, mention of which triggers the recitation of a list of "deficiencies". Ashmead believes a radical shake-up of planning will exacerbate the current delays, possibly with a "two- to three-year hiatus", and he thinks that there should be sanctions on local authorities that fail to deal with applications within time targets, or fail to implement regional planning guidelines on housebuilding. Finally, he says, a tariff-based alternative to planning gain is an "unacceptable concept".

Although the difference in tone might not be readily apparent to an outsider, Ashmead stresses that his robust negotiations are a million philosophical miles from the HBF's traditional position of "parking its tanks on the lawn outside the DTLR and saying 'over our dead bodies'." He goes on: "There's a difference between saying 'this is an outrageous imposition on the industry and we're not going to co-operate' and 'we support your objectives but think there are significant concerns in the details'."

Ashmead concedes that one reason for his list of deficiencies is that the HBF did not have access to policy-makers when the green paper was drafted. "Influence is most effective at the stage before policy formulation. If you don't participate, you automatically become an objector and are immediately wrong-footed." He adds that in the past six months, the HBF has "probably had more meetings with government officials than in the last six years".

A more clear-cut departure from the past is the HBF's new position on design. The wider construction industry has now come to terms with the notion that design quality should be an aspiration for everyone, rather than a luxury for the few. But large sections of the volume housebuilding industry remained in thrall to the Toy Town vernacular of brick boxes decorated with stick-on eaves detailing.

Personal effects

Who is in your family?
My partner and I live in Wycombe with our four children, aged between five and 17.
What’s the appeal of a Harley Davidson? It’s a style statement, isn’t it?
And it’s a very strong brand with notions of a free lifestyle, open skies, long roads.
Any other passions?
I’m a keen sailor, I have a dinghy. I come from a shipping background so I’ve got salt water in my blood.
Do you spend your weekends looking round showhomes?
Actually I do, as we need to move. I think that the quality of the houses is really pretty good – the difficulty is the density. You can stand between two £350,000 houses, stretch out your arms and touch both of them. But that’s not the housebuilders’ fault …