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English Partnerships' Steve Carr reveals his thoughts on eco-towns and his organisation's house-building record

Steve Carr is head of policy and economics at English Partnerships (EP). He talks to Max Thompson about the challenges of house-building and the quality of the architects EP uses.

Can you define EP's mission statement for me?
To support the government’s housing-regeneration agendas.

And how many homes did EP build last year?
We had 4,248 completions.

That doesn’t sound like a lot when you consider the government’s target of three million new homes by 2020…
The speed of building is an issue, but we are modest in our claims. There may only be 4,000 completions attributable to EP, but in terms of facilitation there are thousands more.

Our outputs trajectory massively rises in the next four years, when we will be absorbed into the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) [the new government agency for housing and regeneration].
We are involved in many long-term land-assembly projects. Take Middlehaven in Middlesbrough, where we are building 1,000 homes. De-silting and decontamination took three years, building new roads took three years, and getting the Will Alsop design through planning took another year.

Grimshaw pulled out of the EP framework agreement as it was not prepared to sign a performance guarantee (AJ 07.02.08). Are you concerned that good architects will be deterred from working with you?
It has not been a big issue – we still have good architects working for us.

Architects need to take responsibility to make sure what they specify is durable and mortgageable. They need to learn that they are not just designing something that is then delivered by somebody else. So having some sort of performance bond in the contract is good practice.

Do you think EP currently uses enough good architects?
I think we do. We have been encouraging housebuilders to use good architects for a while. The Millennium Communities programme [seven exemplar sustainable communities across the UK] is an example, and what Richard Rogers has done with Taylor Wimpey in Milton Keynes is another. Those homes have replaced the concrete cows as the symbol of Milton Keynes.

And in New Islington, Manchester we have Will Alsop’s scheme coming out of the ground and FAT’s award-winning Islington Square scheme.

What is EP’s role at Robin Hood Gardens [the Smithsons’ East London housing estate threatened with demolition?]
We were brought in by the local council (Tower Hamlets). EP is associated with new build, but we are also involved with regenerating failed communities. The name English Partnerships means something, we often partner public bodies and are brought to unlock schemes that they can’t.

EP has a huge land bank, but does it need to be more strategic in its acquisitions?
We will go where the sites are, where they are declared surplus. Our strategic approach is that we will buy what our budget enables us to in a particular year – we are cash-limited by government.
Seventy per cent of our programme is self-funded from our own land, so EP has been fairly cheap for the government at around £300 million a year. The Housing Corporation gets £2 billion a year.

The HCA comes into existence this year. What will it achieve that EP and the Housing Corporation could not?
It will broaden and deepen the existing things that EP does already. There will be more state regeneration and retro-fitting and the tenure mix on housing estates will be improved.
There will be better efficiencies, as we are putting land together with subsidies and making sure funding is available

What is EP’s take on the government’s eco-town programme?
Eco-towns are not necessarily as distinct and unique as the debate has been making them out to be. We see them as an area of work we are already engaged with through initiatives such as the Carbon Challenge initiative.

We will all be living in eco-towns in the long run. The distinctiveness sounds novel, but they will share exactly the same things as other place that are trying to accommodate new homes.

I would see these places as fitting into the context of where we build the homes and what quality the homes should be rather than, a new movement.

By the time the homes are built it will be past 2016, when Code for Sustainable Homes level six will be mandatory for everybody.

Your space standards have been designed to banish ‘lonely households’. Does this mean the death of small, well-designed microflats?
There have been brilliant solutions to small spaces, but we are saying that one-person living will not necessarily survive into the next housing market and we will not build anything below 51m2, and nothing designed only for one person.

STEVE CARR’S CV

• Education: BA Philosophy and Politics, Hull University, 1981; MA Industrial Relations, Warwick University, 1982.

• Headed-up Manchester City Council’s area-regeneration programmes in the late ’80s.

• Director of campaign group the Low Pay Unit, which successfully lobbied for the introduction
of the national minimum wage.

• Joined EP at its inception in 1995 as advisor to the Treasury on projects including the Millennium Dome and coalfield regeneration.

• Headed up Design for Manufacture (£60k home) competition.

• Currently running EP’s Carbon Challenge, which aims to deliver the UK’s first mass-produced zero-carbon homes to level six of the Code for Sustainable Homes. The first is Barratt’s Hanham Hall scheme in Bristol.

• Interests: Live music at the Wigmore Hall, growing vegetables, editing Flamenco News magazine.

• Lives: Highgate, North London with his partner, Helen, and six-year-old son, Oscar.

• Design inspirations: Landscape architect Martha Schwartz, the bridges of Santiago Calatrava, and the writing of Mike Davis, American urban theorist.

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