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HCA chief: ‘Private investment is crucial for housing delivery’

New Homes and Communities Agency chief executive Andy Rose discusses the future of affordable housing and prospects for architects

What will be the Homes & Communities Agency’s (HCA’s) prime method of affordable housing delivery up to and after 2015?
If I had to identify one route then it would have to be the Affordable Homes Programme (AHP), underpinned by effective regulation of social housing providers to protect social housing assets and create the right conditions for lending. But in truth, I think the lines between delivery of affordable housing and all other tenures – market rent, private sale, etc – are becoming increasingly blurred, particularly in the current economic climate. The agency now has a range of programmes that complement and overlap with the AHP – such as Help to Buy, Built to Rent and the release of large scale sites and public land. Continued momentum in these programmes will be one of my top priorities. I’m also keen to encourage greater private-public sector working by improving communication between the two.

What impact will housing benefit reform and affordable rent have on the design and delivery of HCA-backed schemes going forward?
We don’t yet know what the outcome of the next spending round will be, but it’s reasonable to expect that there will continue to be limits on the amount of public capital available. Private investors work on a commercial return basis, so if you make clear what the opportunities are in that respect, then they will invest and we will help ensure capital continues to flow into the sector. Welfare reform has the potential to impact on providers’ income streams. To mitigate this, they are turning to alternative forms of lending, such as the bond markets, or new forms of finance such as sale and leaseback; while they are also diversifying their activities, often into non-social housing activity, to generate returns that they can reinvest in affordable housing.

How do you guarantee design quality in private sector schemes benefiting from HCA funding?
The HCA is a national agency that delivers locally – sounds a cliché, but it’s true. Our activities are tailored to meet the identified needs of local communities; and in terms of quality we will often work with local partners to set locally-specific ambitions for sites. While in general we rely quite rightly on the planning system and local strategies such as design review panels to ensure quality is achieved in the private sector, there are other mechanisms available such as selling land on a building licence to ensure those ambitions are met.

HCA facts and figures

Total land holdings
10,200 hectares

Total staff
862

Total investment 2011 to 2015
£12.5 billion

Target for affordable homes delivered by 2015
123,000

Target for employment floor space delivered by 2015
1 million m2

Total office space delivered 2012 to 2013
322,000m2

Total private sector investment attracted in 2012 to 2013
£1 billion

Total previously developed land converted into housing in 2012 to 2013
113 hectares (target: 94 hectares)

Is there a role for architects to assist the HCA in finding maximum value and use in the disposal of its land holdings?
Yes. We draw on a whole range of skills to help us to understand the demand and market for our land and that of other public bodies, and how best specific sites can be used – planners, surveyors, architects, brownfield specialists, etc.

Generally we will release land to the private sector as soon as possible, however it also needs to be made as attractive to potential developers as possible. For example, in areas where demand may be low, we will work to reduce risk and encourage confidence in a local market by illustrating the potential of a land asset through a masterplan, or by achieving outline planning in advance. Through such approaches, architects working collaboratively with other professions can help achieve better long-term value to sites.

In such circumstances, architectural services are among those necessary to achieve a local vision; and in particular architects with good community consultation, masterplanning, sustainability or urban design skills may be particularly useful.

Does the HCA see a special role for architects in boosting quality and long-term value when making sure existing stock meets Decent Home Standard?
Architectural expertise is certainly needed in some cases to meet the Decent Home Standard, which is now incorporated into the HCA’s regulatory framework. However, the challenge of the existing stock is becoming even more complex with the need to improve environmental sustainability: energy efficiency, adaptation to climate change and contribution to the renewables target. Architects have a key role to play in meeting this challenge.

What kind of architects do you work with? How can architects do business with the HCA?
Our requirements differ from scheme to scheme, ranging from [architects] with particular urban design skills for masterplanning, to those specialising in designing homes that meet the maintenance challenges of the future. For that reason, our multidisciplinary panel represents a range of architects, both directly and as sub-consultants.

In a majority of cases the opportunities would be indirect through our partners, so a clear recommendation would be to keep in touch with the major developers and housing associations. There’s also the multidisciplinary panel, as and when it is re-procured, and there’s the delivery partner panel, where again there may be opportunities as sub-consultants. And finally, there would be the land disposals we undertake, where those who buy the land may be looking to take on architects and other consultants immediately.

 

Comment: Nick Johnson of Nick Johnson Consulting

Andy Rose has a tough challenge ahead. The HCA has ben in a state of flux since the 2007 merger of two organisations, English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation. Seen as the regeneration über agency it took the best part of 12 months to formulate and deliver just to arrive in 2008 as the Lehmans collapse pulled the rug from under the overgeared and overconfident global banking sector. Over the last 5 years it has become largely indistinguishable from the Housing Corporation it replaced, save for the fact that it can now offer modest support to the private sector house builder.

Rose claims the Affordable Housing Programme is the central plank of delivery. The NAHP has more confusing programmes, acronyms and variations on a theme than Starbucks have variants of coffee - Rent to Homebuy, First Time Buyers Initiative, Homebuy Direct, Help to Buy, Build to Rent, Firstbuy, First Steps, Expanded Open Market Homebuy. The HCA need to recognise that one size doesn’t fit all, that London’s affordability problems are not the same as Northern England’s viability problems and the solution is much deeper than yet another shuffle of their limited lexicon.

As to the role for architects, the HCA seem to suggest that they know some of the right words, they talk the talk but there is little evidence to suggest that they walk the walk. Design ambition might have been genuinely there at conception when wise words were written but those ambitions have been neutered in the aftermath of the cuts.

Over the last few years they have changed focus away from delivery partner to ‘enabler’ but enabling isn’t sufficient in a feeble market where deeper structural issues are the principle impediment to delivery added to the fact that they’ve ended up with a ruck of sites from defunct RDA’s to add to their stockpile of land in unfashionable, unsuitable, undesirable and unfundable areas.

It seems like their strategy is a defensive ‘keep calm and carry on’, not newfound clarity and honesty about what’s working, what’s not and a committed effort to address some of the many and varied structural issues that are holding back both the quality and quantum of housing delivery in the UK today. 

 

 

 

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