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A happy hitch or a monstrous union?

HOUSING

One of the first tasks of the newly formed Department for Communities and Local Government will be to decide whether to merge the Housing Corporation with regeneration body English Partnerships. Alasdair Reisner looks at what the resulting organisation might look like

DOWN at the Department of Communities and Local Government they are assembling a monster. Like assistants in Frankenstein's laboratory, civil servants are bringing together various constituent parts required to animate a beast that looks set to dominate the worlds of affordable housing and regenerat ion.

Their work involves considering whether to bring together two of the swaggering giants of urban renewal ? English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation ? under one new super-agency.

On the face of it this seems a good idea. Both organisations already work together on much of the regeneration work for which they are each responsible.

What could be better than knocking down the walls that currently stand between them to allow them to pursue the same combined objectives from within a single organisation?

This was certainly the intention when DCLG minister Baroness Andrews announced it to Parliament in April.

'The review will consider the best way of organising national delivery mechanisms to maximise the use of private investment, public subsidy and land holdings, and assets funded by past public investment to support the delivery of new homes and mixed sustainable communities, ' she said.

But will it really work out that way? Organisat ions across the regeneration spectrum are currently having their say with responses to questions (see right) about the potential merger put out by the department when it announced the review.

Among them is the British Urban Regeneration Association. Its steering and development forum manager, Paul Jess, worked on the association's response.

'We need a streamlined approach to regeneration.

If you merged the two agencies you would have a development body ?English Partnerships ? with a funding body ?the Housing Corporation ?in the same organisation. That would be good in terms of streamlining. But we don't want it to be just an organisation with two distant branches. We also don't want to see the current strengths of both organisations being diluted, ' he says.

Chief among BURA's recommendations is that the review be widened out to look at how the whole regeneration community, including regional development agencies, can be rationalised to avoid different bodies all trying to do the same job.

'Often there are too many examples where any number of agencies are involved in a par t icular project or scheme, with the result that there are too many bureaucracies obtaining the same approvals and too much duplication of staff effort. Regional development agencies have a broad spect rum of issues to deal with.

Physical regeneration could quite easily be contained within one organisation. The RDAs would still have much to do, ' says the BURA response.

It also highlights the fact that the review, important though it is, must not be allowed to become a logjam in the progress of current regenerat ion schemes.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has also responded to the consultation questionnaires.

One of its main hopes is that any new organisation is given a real chance to get to grips with physical regenerat ion without the encumberance of some of the Housing Corporation's regulatory functions.

'The new body should transfer the regulatory and governance functions to the Audit Commission to allow it to concentrate on long-term strategic housing planning, funding the programme of affordable housing and the delivery of major mixed tenure sustainable projects, ' says the RICS response.

The organisation also calls for the new organisation to focus more on refurbishment of existing homes and communities, bringing buildings up to current standards for energy efficiency and environmental performance.

As a leading affordable housing contractor, Wates is keeping a keen eye on the review. Paul O'Driscoll is business development director at Wates Living Space, the firm's affordable housing division. He says the Government has demanded much from contractors in terms of helping to deliver sustainable communities and it is now important for Government to play its own part to achieve these ends.

'Anything that is likely to have an influence on the delivery of housing, including affordable housing, would seem sensible. But we have to see whether that can be achieved. I'm not sure combining English Partnerships' ability to provide land for development with the Housing Corporation's funding ability will work, because you are still held back by planning issues, ' says Mr O'Driscoll.

'I hope the new body will lobby pretty hard for changes in the planning system. It would be nice if it had powers similar to the urban development corporations to push through planning. At the moment that is taking too long. It would be difficult to do because of all the consultation you need to go through to get planning permission, but surely it isn't beyond the wit of man.' Another contractor with strong links to the regenerat ion sector is Galliford Try. Stephen Teagle, the f irm's group director for affordable housing, is supportive of the review.

He says: 'I can see the logic of a review to look for inefficiencies. It is being done in the context that both organisations have had some successes. Under Jon Rouse the Housing Corporation has managed to increase both output and efficiency. It has recently been looking into bringing in the private sector. That has been partially successful in terms of lowering the level of affordable housing grant required but the jury is still out.

'I think English Partnerships has been more successful in terms of engaging with the pr ivate sector.

'I would want to see something that draws out the best in both agencies and doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. It should be focused on delivery, particularly in the growth areas and brownfield sites.' But Mr Teagle also warns that the merger between the two organisations may not yet be the done deal that has been suggested.

'It is interesting that Ruth Kelly seems to be looking at the proposals quite closely, as you would expect her to, since she took over at the DCLG. I'm not now sure whether we will end up with one super-agency or whether the review will lead instead to a refocusing on what both English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation do, ' he says.

'Is there an advantage in the merger or should we just take the existing organisations and enhance the way they work?' It is expected that the DCLG will answer th is question by the end of the summer. Only then will we find out whether the regeneration sector is to be introduced to a happy marriage or a terrible monster.