Profile - Sir Bob Kerslake - The home maker

31 Jan 08
Next year, the Homes and Community Agency will take over a swathe of housing and wider responsibilities. Its chief executive in waiting is raring to go, he tells Neil Merrick

01 February 2008

Next year, the Homes and Community Agency will take over a swathe of housing and wider responsibilities. Its chief executive in waiting is raring to go, he tells Neil Merrick

It is mid-January and Sir Bob Kerslake has taken a few days off from his regular job. But instead of sitting at home listening to music or taking a walk in his beloved Peak District, the chief executive of Sheffield City Council is working harder than ever.

Since being appointed to lead the nascent Homes and Communities Agency in late December, Kerslake's life has become frighteningly hectic. His 'days off' mostly consist of travelling to London and juggling meetings with civil servants and members of his start-up team from a temporary office at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Not that he regrets accepting the post, which starts officially in March. He readily admits that it will be a wrench to leave Sheffield, where he has overseen the transformation of the city centre as well as wider neighbourhood regeneration. But he relishes the opportunity to move to a national stage.

Much is resting on the new agency, which will swing into operation in April 2009. Not only must it ensure that 3 million new homes are built in England by 2020 in line with the government's eco-agenda, but it will also take charge of improving social housing, tackling homelessness and regenerating cities.

In addition to taking over the work of the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships, both of which will disappear in the shake-up, the agency is due to inherit responsibility for housing and other schemes from the DCLG.

'We can achieve more in combination than individually,' he says. 'The housing challenge is huge, but it's about more than housing. It's about the places where people live, as well as their homes.'

Kerslake accepts that many councils have yet to be convinced of the value of the agency, but his local government background should help to win over doubters in town halls.

'They know what the ingredients are but they don't know what the cake is going to look like,' he says. 'I want it to be local government's best delivery partner.'

Housing associations, meanwhile, must become used to life with a new funding agency at the same time as a second new body – the Office for Tenants and Social Landlords – takes charge of their regulation.

Registered social landlords, he says, will remain the principal providers of social housing. But they will need to work more closely with local authorities and continue to build more homes without depending on corresponding increases in grant. 'We need to harness the huge assets of housing associations as well as their expertise and resources.'

The agency will be judged on results – but ministers will still determine levels of funding, as well as ruling which councils set up arm's-length management organisations or transfer their stock to housing associations. They will also decide the long-term future of programmes such as the housing market renewal pathfinders.

Asked to describe the agency's relationship with the DCLG, Kerslake says ministers expect it to 'input into policy observations' but stresses the need for 'conversation' at local and national level. 'The government will set the policy framework for the agency,' he says. 'But within that there is a huge amount of local scope for conversation over the way forward.'

Kerslake, a CIPFA member since the late 1970s, spent almost 20 years in London, initially with the Greater London Council and then with the Inner London Education Authority. In 1989, he moved to Hounslow as director of finance, before being promoted to the chief executive's post a year later.

In 1997, he was appointed chief executive of Sheffield, where he lives with his wife Anne, an associate head teacher in a local primary school, and their two children. The couple's experience as first-time house buyers during the 1980s makes him determined to ensure that people on limited incomes are not squeezed out of the property market.

'Everybody has a housing story. I remember the first house we bought as a couple in London. We didn't have huge assets,' he says. 'If we don't tackle the supply and demand issues, we are denying people opportunity.'

The location of the HCA has still to be decided, but Kerslake is confident that it won't mean his family upping roots. 'We are working through the accommodation options. I would like to sort it out sooner rather than later.'

In the meantime, regular commuting between Sheffield and London gives him an extra opportunity to listen to part of his vast music collection on his iPod. 'It's a great source of enjoyment. On a good weekend, I'll walk out from Sheffield to the Peak District [listening to music]. It's fantastic.'

His tastes range from blues and classical music to hip-hop, some of it recommended by his son Michael. 'It's one of our common points of reference,' he says. 'I think hip-hop builds hugely on jazz. I've also started listening to heavy metal and country. I don't know what's happening.'

A small start-up team has been established for the HCA ahead of Kerslake leaving Sheffield council in late March to become chief executive designate for 12 months. 'I'm keen to bring a little extra direction and pace to the setup,' he adds. 'There was some good work already done but it's hard without the chief executive there.'

The agency will inherit staff from the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships, but its total workforce is still expected to be less than half the size of Sheffield's 17,000 employees. Nevertheless, effective communication will be key to its success internally, as well as with other bodies that come to rely on its regional offices.

'I want to bring an influential style [of leadership] that creates a clear sense of vision but gives people the confidence to lead themselves,' explains Kerslake. 'In Sheffield, we created a real sense of confidence and can-do.'

Joanne Roney, the council's deputy chief executive, describes Kerslake as a 'visionary' who is quick to connect different agendas but, at the same time, highly supportive of colleagues. 'He is clear about what he expects and is determined to see things through,' she says. 'Nothing is impossible with Bob if he puts his mind to it.'

Housing has enjoyed a higher profile in the past 12 months than for many years and Kerslake is determined to take advantage of this to ensure that the agency becomes well known outside the normal circles. At the same time, he has no desire to hog the limelight or become a household name.

Asked if he fancies being quizzed about housing on BBC TV's Newsnight, he makes it clear that he would prefer the housing minister to speak on behalf of the government.

'It's not my profile that's important,' he says. 'It's the agenda that we're trying to promote.'


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