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New HCA chief to focus on delivery

The Homes and Communities Agency will continue to prioritise delivering construction projects whatever happens in the Comprehensive Spending Review, new chief executive Pat Ritchie has pledged.

The government has warned that the agency will be smaller and more strategic as part of its localism agenda. The HCA has lost £700 million from its 2010/11 budget and is likely to receive further cuts at next week’s CSR.

But Ms Ritchie, the former HCA North East director who will take over from outgoing chief executive Sir Bob Kerslake on 1 November, told Construction News this would not change its focus.

She said: “We will continue to focus on delivery. That might involve more flexible ways of bringing projects forward and keeping projects going using things such as land assets, working with local authorities on how they bring investment forward and on borrowing, and working with the sector to ensure development continues in a more challenging public and private sector market.

“We may have less funding so we will need to use that funding and land as flexibly as possible. And I think we have shown a realwillingness to do that. We would look to build on that in the future.”

Ms Ritchie said she had identified three key priorities for the HCA. “We will continue to deliver this year on our programmes which are focused on affordable housing, Kickstart and others,” she said.

“The second point is to get clear what comes out of the CSR and what that means for the organisation. Then the key will be to reshape and restructure the organisation in response to the CSR and to focus on localism.”

Housing minister Grant Shapps has pledged to retain the HCA but in a slimmed down form with its “functions delivered under local leadership”, which Ritchie says she is well prepared to deliver.

“It will become more of an investment and enabling agency,” she explained. “So we will work with local authorities and communities looking at affordable housing and land use and existing stock.

“We expect to continue work on local investment plans with local authorities to identify where we put our investment and expertise.”

Major housebuilders identified the HomeBuy Direct scheme - where first time-buyers are provided with an equity loan part-funded by the HCA - as a key priority for the sector.

But Ms Ritchie refused to be drawn on its future. She said all the agency’s schemes were under consideration in the CSR and that there would be a range of demands to consider.

“Over the past two years, we have worked with the sector to look at ways of bringing forward stalled sites and that’s including HomeBuy Direct, affordable housing and other options.

“Moving forward we would look to build on that but it would depend on what objectives and investment the CSR gives us.”

She added: “I do appreciate that HomeBuy Direct has made a big impact in quite a few areas. The housing minister has been quite clear in relation to the agency that we will be slimmer and more strategic so we are expecting that there will be reductions in both capital and revenue budgets, but what level depends on the CSR.”

Housebuilders last month gave the Homes and Communities Agency a vote of confidence after it approved funding for 105 schemes that “otherwise would have been mothballed” (CN, 16 September, page 20).

More than half of 165 Kickstart and LANB schemes put under review due to the agency’s budget cut received funding. More than 4,800 homes will be built through Kickstart and more than 600 will be developed under Local Authority New Build.

The Home Builders Federation told CN the HCA had demonstrated its benefit as an agency focused on delivery as opposed to policy.

It said the Kickstart and HomeBuy Direct schemes had played a significant part in “the stabilisation after the downturn” and had contributed greatly to housebuilding figures.