As trailed on Monday, I bring some seriously good cheer about the future of Her Majesty’s Government Homes and Communities Agency.
It is an organisation seriously On The Turn.
As many of you will have already witnessed, at MIPIM and elsewhere, Sir Edward Lister is making a serious fist out of reforming the HCA and demonstrably leading the charge for more, much more, housing delivery. His mission is to drive up scale and pace of delivery, and quality of the built environment. His biggest challenge, of course, being the lack of capacity in the construction industry, as dealt with exhaustively in this column and elsewhere (although his accelerated construction fund is a direct response to that, and Mark Farmer and his able team are integrally involved).
The HCA is, and I kid you not, turning into nothing short of a lean mean delivery machine. Sir Ed and his new chief executive Nick Walkley, have set about reorganising the agency so that it has become truly proactive. It is an astonishing turnaround. And all of those involved should be heartily congratulated.
And I do not advance this opinion lightly. Like many of you in our sector, I have had some truly ghastly experiences with the old HCA. You don’t want to witness a grown woman crying so I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say that, during the course of (almost all of) 2013 when my little SME had had the temerity to apply for Build to Rent 1 (BTR1 for those of us still hooked on acronyms), after 10 months of torture, I was eventually turned down on grounds that we had been assured were adequately dealt with in our very FIRST meeting.
One of these was that UKR had “no track record as a developer” which was a bit rum, given that Wates was our development partner at the time. And, as I was given to muttering darkly to whoever would listen, I do not suppose for one moment that any of the volume house builders would have been asked for 150 – yes, one hundred and fifteeeee – documents. Blimey! My poor little team. It was exhausting and dispiriting.
So it was hardly surprising that, a couple of years later, when I was working in CLG and was approached for my views by the civil servant leading the review into the HCA (this was well before Sir Edward’s appointment) my immediate response was “close the blighter down. Collapse it immediately. The market will cheer to the rafters”. This was met with rueful glances of very real sympathy, but the poor beleaguered civil servant did then gently point out to me that the then-housing minister had just promised to deliver 1m new homes by 2020, and that it wasn’t really an option to disband the only government agency that we had concerned with housing. And I had to concede the point.
But that was then and this is now. What a difference! I am wholly convinced that the restructured, reformed, repurposed HCA, shortly to be relaunched as Homes England (just as soon as the pesky general election is out of the way) is going to seriously stimulate housing delivery in the UK, seeking out the new market entrants so very badly needed to diversify and strengthen the housing sector.
Disruption is now the name of the game (and you can’t fail but take heart when “disruption” is the mantra of the civil service). And you know when something is a winner in government, when smart delivery-oriented civil servants are actively being attracted from other departments to join the team; right now it is something of a stampede.
And it isn’t just in Whitehall, it is at the chalk face. Just the other day, in my incarnation as chair of the Crewe Constellation I met with senior officers in the North West office, and I came away seriously impressed by the can-do attitude and the positivity on offer.
It was like meeting people from the private sector. These are officers who know full well that the processes can be onerous and they are putting themselves on offer to work intensively with applicants for whichever fund is appropriate (they will even triage that for you) to ensure that you get to yes. And with an eye-watering £28bn on offer in various pots, there sure is a lot for those of us in this market to play for.
One and a half million new homes by 2022 is pretty punchy by any standards. But I am totally convinced that the brilliant and brave Eddie Lister and his Homes England team will do everything they conceivably can to deliver this target.