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the best intentions

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Rowntree Foundation director Lord Best prides himself on getting a job done. This week, while speaking at the Urban Summit in Birmingham, he is determined to get his house-building message across

The Rowntree Foundation is one of New Labour's favourite think tanks. It is frequently enthusiastic about what it has to say and is often keen to quote its reports.

And, with what cynics describe as a softlysoftly, left-of-centre, heart-on-sleeve attitude to housing policy research, it is hardly difficult to see why this think tank so often pleases Tony and his cronies.

Lord Best, the foundation's 57-year-old director, believes his greatest achievement since joining in 1988 is forcing these ministers and decision-makers to listen to what the organisation is arguing.A one-time boss of the National Federation of Housing Associations and all-round social housing guru, the father of three was originally persuaded to lead the foundation because it had just found itself in the money. A huge one-off inheritance of £300 million - from the 1987 sale of Rowntree's, the iconic British confectioner - represented what Best describes as an irresistible opportunity to 'really do something'.

And Best prides himself on getting those things done. Nowadays when the Rowntree Foundation says something, it has a good chance of making a difference.

Journalists love its no-nonsense approach to communicating reports, and the government appreciates it for many of its conclusions.

But Best believes it is not the quality of the research - and commissioning research is the foundation's raison d'être - that sets it apart from other well-funded think tanks - it is the way it publicises the findings. Last week was a case in point. It published a fairly dry report into the successes and failures of Section 106 agreements. Yet coverage was widespread in national newspapers and the media. Some achievement, considering the technicalities of the subject for laymen.

'In the 1980s, ' Best explains, 'the foundation was an intellectually healthy organisation, but back then the fantastic reports being produced were simply gathering dust on library shelves. We've changed that. Now we use the reports as a weapon to engage with policy.'

This is the crux of the matter. Engaging with politicians is something Best is renowned for. After all, he is an active member of the House of Lords, a place where it is difficult to avoid political movers and shakers, even if most are in the twilight of their careers.

It will also be difficult to avoid new Labour apparatchiks at the Urban Summit, kicking off today. Unsurprisingly, Best is chairing one of the highest profile discussions, 'Where Shall We Live? - Bridging the Regional Gap'. It promises to be a lively debate on the future location of house building throughout the UK.

He gives short shrift to the cynics who claim the Urban Summit will prove to be yet another talking shop, producing little more than the emissions from the deputy prime minister's fleet of Jaguars. This professional thinker really believes that something worthwhile will come of it. 'The summit has a very special significance for the government, ' Best stresses. 'John Prescott has held off sealing the details of the Urban White Paper until he, and his civil servants, have heard what the delegates have to say over the next two days.'

And if Best fails to get his message across in Birmingham, then he will certainly force planning minister Lord Rooker to listen in Parliament. Although considered, Best is also highly engaging. Like the best kind of university lecturer, when he talks, people listen.He has a big agenda, both privately and publicly, and it quickly becomes apparent on meeting him that he always has a lot to do.

'There are so many problems in this country. Homelessness, poverty, housing shortages and negative equity are just some ofthe issues that need to be solved.We have allowed housing supply and demand to get out of kilter. It really needs to be sorted out - and fast.'

As if this is not enough, Best has now set about making waves in architecture. The foundation's work on its revolutionary CASPAR scheme with Levitt Bernstein and Alford Hall Monaghan Morris won it a shortlisting for RIBA Client of the Year. The City Centre Apartments for Single People at Affordable Rents projects in Birmingham and Leeds have proved it is possible to develop award-winning housing schemes in prime locations, charge low rents and still expect a good return.Although CASPAR lost out to the 'ultra cool' Urban Splash for first place, Best is still very excited about what the foundation can achieve in architecture.

'This was such a liberating experience, ' he enthuses. 'These were two absolutely smashing projects at the forefront of social housing developments. We will be doing more CASPAR schemes in the future.Watch this space.'

Perhaps surprisingly, Best appears to really believe in politicians and their ability to make things happen, an attitude that is both unusual and refreshing. 'We must be constantly careful not to overly criticise the government. When they do things right, we must be careful to praise them as passionately as we criticise them when they do something wrong, ' he says.

'At the moment, the government has picked up a lot of very good policies on housing and we must not be ashamed to say 'well done', ' he adds with a smile. 'We are not an opposition party, we should not criticise just for the sake of it.'

And this positive, some might even say naive, attitude continues with his work in the House of Lords, where Best has the dubious honour of being one of Tony Blair's 'Peoples' Peers'. Who, in their right mind, I ask, would take on a job from which there is no real remuneration, no retirement date and no real power? Richard Best is just that kind of person.

He is a cross-bencher - parliamentary jargon for being neutral - and is clearly revelling in it. 'Nobody knows how I am going to vote - sometimes not even I know.'

However, a seriousness quickly returns, an attitude to life that one suspects is never far away. 'I would never vote on something that I do not know anything about, ' he declares.

'That would be presumptuous.'

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