The king of British housebuilding talks to Phil Clark about architecture, the great British housebuilder and – after the departure of Tony Jr from Berkeley– why he ain't going anywhere yet.
Sitting in the central office of Berkeley House, Surrey, the hub of one of the UK's most successful housebuilders, is the man who has all the trappings of wealth (£1.1m bonus, shiny new Bentley to whisk him around his sites in London and the South-east, and so on). He is the man who almost single-handedly created a firm whose market value is £1bn, and is perfectly positioned to cash in on the government determination to push brownfield development. He is Tony Pidgley, dealmaker extraordinaire, a master alike of land-buying and the tricky ways of the City.

Up to last year, it even seemed he had answered the difficult question of succession – his son, Prince Tony, was heir apparent. So surely Pidgley can afford to lean back on his squeaky leather chair, put his frantic deal-making days behind him, and contemplate his rise from Barnado boy brought up by gypsies to business tycoon?

Not a chance.

For one thing, the man who would be King, Tony Pidgley Jr, did not read the script. He quit the firm last February, creating another thrilling episode in the Pidgley family soap beloved by the national newspapers – the break-up of Pidgley's first marriage and a spat with his daughter Tania were previous instalments in the drama. His son's departure was just the latest familial bust-up in the wide, excited eyes of City correspondents.

Unsurprisingly, Pidgley sees it another way. "Me and him get on very well," he says. "There was no bad feelings."

What it left, however, was Dad still firmly in charge for the foreseeable future. "This year I will be 54," he says, before adding: "I ain't going anywhere yet. I ain't finished."

Pidgley is candid as to what led to his son's departure, putting it down to a business issue rather than a personal one – Pidgley Jr is now fronting his own housing operation, Cadenza, with plans for a City flotation in five years.

The assumption that his son would necessarily take over was wrong, Pidgley says. "All the other managers thought it was a foregone conclusion. I don't think it works to do it that way."

As far as Pidgley is concerned, you can't plan a succession. To explain, he unwittingly turns from King Tony into Swiss Tony from The Fast Show. "You can't plan when you fall in love. You meet the right girl and it happens very quickly. You never know when it will happen." Pidgley sees his job as creating a structure where a successor will naturally emerge.

"I want enough people who have a passion and love for this job, so that when you go they want to be part of this group." And he reckons he has a "whole host" of potential suitors, listing names such as Tony Carey, the boss of St George, Berkeley's inner London arm, and financial director Rob Perrins. "The one who takes over will come to the forefront not by being selected, but because he is a natural leader – people will want to follow him."

This period of Darwinian natural selection means that the frenetic Pidgley remains at the centre of the business. "You need it – the passion. That's what the great housebuilders like Steve Morgan [founder of Redrow] have." This passion partly takes the form of perpetual motion. During the interview he is continually leaning back and forward on his chair, walking around the room, taking abrupt phone calls and visits from staff, barking orders to his secretary and reading City briefing notes. And this level of energy is in spite of the fact that he has not had much sleep over the past weekend – he is in the middle of finalising a series of joint ventures that the firm is financing with a £47m share placement. He E E started joint development deals in the mid-1990s when he teamed up with Thames Water to exploit its landbank. The group now deals with developers such as Chelsfield, Land Securities and Argent. "It's a natural fit dealing with these firms," Pidgley says. "People bring in different skills and, as long there is openness and trust, I think it's the way forward."

Pidgley reckons that housebuilding has never been in better shape, and says the industry has made great strides in the past 10 years. "It's made tremendous progress over the last 10 years in terms of design specification and customer service." He says the sector has reinvented itself now it is concentrating on mixed-use urban schemes. "Twenty years ago you'd never have heard of a housebuilder building in London. In the last 10 years, you've seen an urban renaissance. We have started to mix uses, to address the environment in a proper way – schemes people want to live, work and play in."

Pidgley still has major concerns about finding enough workers to build his projects – "the production of the schemes is very challenging" – but still remains ebullient. He concludes in typically understated fashion. "I think it's an amazing time for British housebuilders. Our future is well set, especially with the lack of supply of housing out there."

His pride in the sector is also fired by the fact that it is still almost exclusively homegrown. "We are one of the few industries left that are all British, apart from Fairclough Homes (owned by US outfit Centex). It's great – UK housebuilding is as good as any in the world."

So, is Pidgley a flag-waving patriot? "I don't know about being patriotic. I like being British, where I live." He even likes UK housing design. "I travel the world and what we have here is quite remarkable. What the British produce in terms of architecture and variety is tremendous."

So what of the design of St George Wharf, the landmark Vauxhall development that was described in The Observer last month as "outstandingly bad architecture" and "as startling an eruption in the south London landscape as a Martian landing". Pidgley did not read the critique – he claims he rarely reads Berkeley's press – but offers a stout defence of the scheme anyway. "Let's go back seven or eight years," he begins. "The site was the wrong site of the river and it was contaminated. I think the land changed hands once for £1. What we have done there has changed forever that side of the river – it's made it acceptable to live there. In total, it's a pretty fantastic thing to happen. At least it's being mentioned." And the transformation is what gives Pidgley his buzz. "That's what excites me about the job – the satisfaction of seeing schemes like St George Wharf develop."

The design discussion puts Pidgley in a philosophical mood. He returns to his favourite analogy – the fairer sex. "Architecture is by definition controversial. That's the beauty of it, the difference. Take my wife – she's just right for me. She makes me laugh, she's fun to be with – I think she's the most beautiful thing in the world. I am sure others would disagree – but who's right?"

Pidgley is perhaps not best known for his views on architecture, but what about the future of the housing market – the perennial British obsession? The sector is reported to have great faith in Pidgley's scrying abilities – he went down in housebuilding legend as the man who anticipated the late 1980s crash in land prices. What is he feeling in his water now? "The market isn't falling as everyone was saying it would." So is Berkeley still buying land? Some in the market claimed the firm put a stop to deals before Christmas. Pidgley denies this, but you get the impression that the firm is taking stock. "It's wrong to say we are not buying land, but it's misleading to say there is tremendous activity."

With that, Pidgley ushers me out of his office as he continues to talk, now offering opinions on his competitors, the recent housebuilding league table published by the Housing Forum and Berkeley's environmental record. Will this man never stop?

Personal effects

What are your hobbies?
I never know how to answer that. I’m happily married. My wife loves horses and dressage – we are going to a show this weekend. I drive the horse box.
What’s your favourite drink?
I don’t really have one. I gave up drink for January and February – you feel a lot better for it. My daughters are also trying to get me to drink hot water and lemon – there’s a lot to be said for it instead of coffee.
I hear you do a mean impression of Prince Charles … Where did you get that from?
I can’t do impressions to save my life.