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Homes and Communities Agency chief executive Andy Rose 'surprised' and 'impressed' by housing industry influence

The new chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency and former Infrastructure UK chief has told Construction News he’s been “pleasantly surprised” by the openness of central government to his input

Andy Rose added that he had been “impressed” with the organisation of housing groups in lobbying Westminster.

Speaking to Construction News just two weeks after taking the reins at the government agency – which is responsible for delivering billions in English housing projects – Mr Rose said he had already held two meetings with housing minister Mark Prisk, as well as senior civil servants, and was meeting with DCLG and the Treasury “almost daily”.

“I’ve been impressed by how the housing sector seems to have organised itself into groups that have the ear of government,” he said, speaking from the ninth-floor of the HCA’s central London office.

This, he said, contrasted with a diverse infrastructure sector, that had more difficulty in creating effective representative groups.

But he insisted his liaison role was that of a “filter”, screening out “self-serving” advice rather than acting as a lobbyist for the housing industry at a time when many housebuilders are turning out healthy profits.

“Everyone has a view on what’s important to them, our job is to voice what’s important for the sector. Will [Treasury] get tired of seeing me? Almost certainly. But one of the things I learnt from my prior experience is if you just become a mouthpiece for stakeholders then eventually [government] will close their ears to you.”

“Banks just aren’t going to be providing long-term lending to infrastructure and social housing that they have in the past.”

Andy Rose, HCA chief executive

Striking a balance

And while accepting that profit was the priority for the private sector, Mr Rose said he would be pushing to deliver volumes instead.

“Profits at the expense of houses being built isn’t what government is pursuing, nor what we’re pursuing.”

The growing muscle of the housebuilding lobby was keenly felt by the construction industry after a government budget which contained major perks for housing – such as the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme – but spelled disappointment for the ailing infrastructure sector.

Mr Rose conceded that housing had enjoyed “quite a big focus” in the spending package, but insisted that infrastructure remained “a hugely important part of the government’s agenda”, pointing to  the £3bn annual injection promised from 2015/16.

Access to government is one area where Mr Rose feels he is particularly well-placed, with plenty of contacts under his belt gathered during his six years as head of Infrastucture UK, the Treasury body responsible for long-term infrastructure planning.

He’s also straddled the public-private divide before, having worked on public-sponsored infrastructure delivery as an executive board member of Partnerships UK – a body owned by both sectors – in a role he says taught him the importance of transparency and long-term relationships.

Luring investment

And though he said securing new financing models outside of the public sector was “critical”, and that he wanted to make sure the HCA had “the right commercial skills”, Mr Rose insisted his appointment didn’t indicate a step-change in HCA policy.

It had been widely speculated that the appointment of a man who spent 17 years working at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, responsible for European infrastructure business, would herald a new drive to rethink housing funding.

“A lot of people have interpreted me coming in in a lot of different ways – almost all of which are over-interpretation. I have no pre-conceived ideas [of financing models].”

He added that he had no intention to shake up the management team, and no “off-the-shelf” model for financing delivery.

Instead, the priority is consulting with clients, contractors, industry bodies, registered providers and the supply chain, with Mr Rose boasting little by way of prior experience of the housing industry.

The new chief executive – who also worked as a debt advisor and asset manager -  is also more optimistic than many about luring institutional investors into the sector, saying there were signs of change as investors developed “quite a strong appetite” for social housing assets, and opportunities in the private rental sector.

And just as well, given his pessimism about banks returning to the lending heyday of the 2000’s – which he said was “unlikely” to return.

“Banks just aren’t going to be providing long-term lending to infrastructure and social housing that they have in the past.”

Instead, he said, low gilt rates were forcing insurance companies and pension funds to look elsewhere for returns on assets, and that infrastructure, renewable energy and social housing were “absolutely” where they were turning their attention.

“In many ways the environment’s quite positive for that now… [But] if there are material constraints, that’s what I really want to understand.”

Pressure to deliver

Mr Rose also praised the work of his predecessor, Pat Ritchie, in identifying a role for the HCA, after what he called a “pretty tough time” over the past few years.

Ms Ritchie announced her departure from the agency in 2012 to head up Newcastle City Council.

She left quite a task behind: Housebuilding has been in steady decline in England since 2007/08, and the latest figures show that housing completions for Q1 2013 were 6,000 down on a year before, and ten per cent down on the quarter.

The HCA has been charged with delivering 170,000 homes by 2015, in a bid to stem the tide of disappointing statistics landing in the government’s lap.

One concern that’s been raised to the new housing boss is that targets centred around the general election mean stakeholders are worried about the pipeline of new housing post-2015, although some programmes were now being extended beyond that.

Several housing associations are concerned  about the strict 2015 deadline for delivery under the £1.8bn Affordable Homes Programme, which is dampening the most ambitious plans.

And he also defended the HCA’s record on land disposal, welcoming the body’s “enhanced role” in disposing of government land and saying the minister was “incredibly” focused on it.

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