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Bob Kerslake: public enemy or social housing saviour?

Bob Kerslake at St John’s Hill development
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The former head of the civil service who helped implement austerity measures is now chair of housing association Peabody. Keith Cooper seeks to discover the real Bob Kerslake

Bob Kerslake: cross-bench peer, erstwhile chief of the civil service,  and one of the most respected voices in housing today, was given a wholly appropriate introduction by a select committee chair last month. As well as a man with ‘many hats’ and ‘past hats’, he would also appear ‘as himself’ – pure and simple. This is how Meg Hillier MP, chair of the influential public accounts committee, put it.

Among his many present-day hats is chair of Peabody, one of the oldest and largest housing associations in England. Here, he will drive the design-savvy landlord’s ambition to build 1,000 homes a year.

But the reason the name Kerslake enjoys such authority owes much to his lengthy career in the civil service. Over three and a half decades, he has driven a heady mix of popular and controversial policies for political masters of all parties and taken the flak for any complicity.

With a first class degree in mathematics in hand, he began his career as a trainee accountant under the Conservative radical Horace Cutler at the now long-gone Greater London Council. He retired from the Civil Service in 2015 after occupying the highest office in Whitehall.

As head of the civil service for the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, he helped slash the state in the name of austerity. He was permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government when its design watchdog arm, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), had its funding lopped off.

He was accused of cutting corners on design for Labour’s Kickstart housing programme

Under the Labour administration, as head of the Homes & Communities Agency, he was accused of cutting corners on design for Kickstart, a scheme to keep the house-building industry afloat (he denies this). Kerslake even appears as the ‘villain of the piece’ in Owen Hatherley’s A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, according to Will Self’s review in the London Review of Books. This time for knocking down homes for New Labour’s ‘pathfinder’ programme, while at Sheffield Council, where he was chief executive in the 90s and 00s.

So why is Kerslake so warmly received by the housing lobby today? What are his plans for Peabody? And what does he really think of the value of design and architecture?

Hawkins\Brown’s St John’s Hill scheme in Clapham Junction

Hawkins\Brown’s St John’s Hill scheme in Clapham Junction

Source: Ben Blossom

Hawkins\Brown’s St John’s Hill scheme in Clapham Junction is almost complete

To start to understand this mild-mannered man, it’s worth a return to Sheffield, where he had a most formative encounter. Shortly after becoming chief executive of the city council, he reached out to Jeremy Till, then head of architecture at Sheffield University.

Till, now head of Central Saint Martins, recalls: ‘I remember his PA ringing up my PA and saying he would like three hours of Jeremy, and that’s unheard of. He just wanted me to walk with him and explore the city, to see what I saw. He was trying to understand different ways of seeing the city. This engagement of seeing the city as a complex organisation, rather than a collection of policies, was encouraging.’

What Kerslake would have seen in Sheffield at the time, says Till, was a ‘city on its knees’, laid low by the collapse of its steel industry; starved of funding by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.

Kerslake’s response is seen as one of his greatest personal achievements and was inspired, Kerslake says, by Till’s ideas about the importance in cities of ‘background’ as well as iconic ‘foreground’ buildings. The result was an architectural adventure known as the Heart of the City project, which created a new public realm, stretching from the train station to the city centre.

‘The fall-out from the steel industry had been massive,’ Kerslake tells me from a sparse Peabody office on Westminster Bridge Road in London. ‘The city had to regain a role and a purpose, and I felt that a big part of that was to have a strong visual focus in the city centre.’

Sheffield Winter Garden, by Pringle Richards Sharratt

Sheffield Winter Garden, by Pringle Richards Sharratt

Source: SteveR

The Winter Garden, by Pringle Richards Sharratt, one of the major projects completed in Sheffield while Bob Kerslake was chief executive

The giant urns and water jets of the city’s Peace Gardens and the grand arched greenhouse of Pringle Richards Sharratt’s Winter Gardens that emerged from that project are now hugely popular public spaces. They are the postcard pictures of choice for tourists, Kerslake says. Proof, if any were needed, of the intimacy of public space, identity, and civic pride.

Kerslake now appears to be applying the principles that made Heart of the City such a success to the most ambitious project in Peabody’s pipeline: Thamesmead Town in south-east London.

Taken over by the association in 2014, this long-neglected 1960s new town, designed by the Greater London Council’s Robert Rigg, will be 20 minutes from Tottenham Court Road once Crossrail is complete.

More than 2,800 new homes are planned for the town over the next decade, as well as new shops and vast improvements to public spaces. Architects Proctor and Matthews, LDS and Allies and Morrison have already been appointed to the project.

‘What is most striking about Thamesmead,’ says Kerslake, ‘is that when you drive through, there is no building or area that has decent quality. If I do nothing else as chair of Peabody, I want to create a real sense of place in Thamesmead with really high-quality architectural buildings; not statement buildings, but buildings that create a sense of place and belonging.’

The creation of a new public realm at Thamesmead was an essential part of the brief to architects Proctor and Matthews and Mecanoo, which are designing the masterplan and some of its first phases. ‘The site has fantastic landscape and water margins,’ Andrew Matthews of Proctor and Matthews says. ‘But it was suffering from quite a lot of neglect.’

As in Sheffield, the architects’ blueprint will ‘stitch’ the forecourt of the Abbey Wood Crossrail station to a new public space, this time at Southmere, a lake, hugging parkland. ‘Lord Kerslake is very supportive of this plan,’ says Matthews. ‘He knows that you have to have that sense of place.’

This major redevelopment is far from the only big project Kerslake has piled on his plate since he ‘retired’ aged 60. ‘I prefer to say “stepped down”’, he quipped. Our hour-long interview is time snatched in his busy diary between a House of Lords meeting and the appearance at the Public Accounts Committee.

The pledge to extend right-to-buy to housing associations was ‘wrong in principle and wrong in practice’

Besides being an active member of the Lords, he is chair of the boards of King’s College Hospital, a large teaching hospital in south London, and of Sheffield Theatres Trust. If that’s not enough, he is also leading numerous reviews. He is scrutinising the role of the Treasury for Labour’s shadow chancellor, while heading the London Housing Commission, which was established last year by the independent progressive think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research.

He has also switched quickly from a functionary, whispering advice into ministers’ ears, to an outspoken critic of his former political masters.

Kerslake launched his first salvo just weeks after the Conservative’s election victory last May, and has barely let up since. In a carefully timed assault, published in the Observer, he described the prime minister’s pledge to extend right-to-buy to housing associations as ‘wrong in principle and wrong in practice’, two days before officially joining Peabody as chair.

While Peabody, along with other associations, has now agreed to offer their tenants the right to buy in a ‘voluntary’ deal with ministers, his critiques continue to grab headlines.

Visualisation of Morpeth Road, Hackney, by Urban Salon

Visualisation of Morpeth Road, Hackney, by Mowat & Company (Formerly Urban Salon)

Visualisation of Morpeth Road, Hackney, by Mowat & Company (Formerly Urban Salon)

His ‘deep concerns’ about the Housing & Planning Bill, currently passing through Parliament, as reported in the AJ, remain, he says. ‘While the bill has welcome things, its overall effect is to promote one tenure at the expense of social rent.

‘The consequences of that would be the continued decline of social rented properties. London, of all locations, needs a mix of tenures. Otherwise, we risk undermining the fabric of some neighbourhoods.’

He is also concerned about the ‘sink estate’ brand applied by ministers to post-war social housing, as they seek to sell a new and massive programme of regeneration. ‘There were mistakes made in the 1960s,’ he concedes. ‘But there were an awful lot of good estates too. We have learned and moved on.’

Peabody has its own programme of estate regeneration besides the Thamesmead project, but Kerslake says social landlords must put residents’ perceptions above their own. ‘We may go to an estate and think it needs improvement, while people living on the estate are very proud of it,’ he adds. ‘I’m not quite sure there are sink estates. Are they saying that, typically, people on lower incomes end up where there are low rents?’

A further insight into his attitude towards the refurbishment versus demolition debate can also be drawn from his time at the helm of Sheffield. There, he actively promoted the preservation of its sprawling brutalist Park Hill estate, which the authority sold to developer Urban Splash for a nominal sum.

According to Roger Hawkins of architect Hawkins\Brown, which designed the Stirling Prize-shortlisted revamp, the project would have been ‘difficult to justify’ with a ‘mathematical formula’. ‘A lot of accountants know the cost of everything but not the value,’ Hawkins says. ‘What is great about Lord Kerslake is that he knows the value of things, as well as the cost.’

St John’s Hill, Clapham Junction, by Hawkins\Brown

St John’s Hill, Clapham Junction, by Hawkins\Brown

Source: Ben Blossom

St John’s Hill, Clapham Junction, by Hawkins\Brown

As one of nine firms on Peabody’s major projects panel, Hawkins\Brown is working for Kerslake again, designing the replacement for the 1930s St John’s Hill estate. For this scheme, Peabody agreed to pay Hawkins\Brown the kind of ‘win bonus’ commonly paid by commercial clients when planning approval is secured. Hawkins says such payments –- which he calls ‘catch-up fees’ – can encourage architects to be more creative in their designs, and to remain in the planning process for longer. While this arrangement predates the major and small projects panels Peabody now operates, Kerslake says the St John’s Hill scheme showed the benefits of keeping architects involved after the planning process is complete. Peabody, he says, recognises that ‘very low fees’ can be challenging for commercial architects.

His experience in Whitehall has him unconvinced, however, that government would benefit from a built environment czar, as recommended by the RIBA and a recent House of Lords report. ‘I would need some persuading,’ he says. ‘It is quite hard to make an impact in those sorts of roles in government. They are honoured in the breach; people would be very polite to them. They have to have leverage, and there isn’t a sufficiently powerful champion in government.’

A better and more sustainable approach, he says, would be for councils to replace ‘chief planning officers’ with ‘chief place-making officers’.

‘This could involve a multidisciplinary team, bringing together architects, transport and design,’ he says. He believes there would be ‘more scope to get that right at the local level rather than engineering a post at a national level. It is too easy to create and then remove those posts at a national level.’

Kerslake’s idea of beefing up architectural capacity at local level is the right one, according to Till. ‘The trouble is,’ Till adds, ‘that local authority planning departments are so, so rundown.’

As a Whitehall chief during the austerity years, Kerslake could well be accused of complicity in running such capacity down.

Should he be charged as the villain of the piece once more?

There is no hint of such accusations among his colleagues, clients and peers. They have welcomed Kerslake as a strong ally on housing policy. An influential former servant of the state who needs no introduction.

Curriculum vitae

1997-2008 
Chief executive, Sheffield Council

2008-2010  
Chief executive, Homes & Communities Agency

2010-2015  
Permanent Secretary, Department for Communities & Local Government

2012-2014  
Head of the UK Civil Service

2015             
Crossbench peer, House of Lords
Chair, Peabody

Fish Island Village, Hackney, for Peabody

Fish Island Village, Hackney, for Peabody

Fish Island Village, Hackney, for Peabody

Peabody’s pipeline plans 

Fish Island, Hackney

Scale 580 homes; 4,180m² commercial space
Architects Haworth Tompkins, Pitman Tozer and Lyndon Goode
Cost £200 million, including £7.3 million from Greater London Authority

St John’s Hill, Wandsworth

Scale 538 new homes, replacing 351
Architect Hawkins\Brown
Landscape architect Farrer Huxley Associates
Cost £180 million

Silchester, Kensington & Chelsea

Scale 112 new mixed tenure homes, community and retail facilities
Architect Haworth Tompkins
Cost £24 million 

Morpeth Road, Hackney

Scale Replacement of old garages with 11 houses and a bungalow; first small projects panel scheme
Architect Mowat & Company (Formerly Urban Salon)

Bromley Mills Wharf (Gillender 2), Tower Hamlets

Scale 200 homes; 1,800m² commercial space on former light industrial estate by the River Lea
Architect Allies and Morrison

South Thamesmead

Scale 1,500 homes, around new public square; retail, workspace, community hub with library and pedestrian route, linking area to Abbey Wood Crossrail station
Architect Proctor and Matthews and Mecanoo
Landscape architect Turkington Martin
Cost £70 million from Greater London Authority

The Reach, West Thamesmead

Scale 66 homes, minimum 45 per cent affordable; 300m² community space; and public realm improvements
Architect Pitman Tozer

Griffin Manor Way and Pettman Crescent, West Thamesmead

Scale 850 homes; 4,180m² of commercial space, including 60-bed hotel; fire station; public square, and retail
Architect Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands Architects

 

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