Profile - Peter Marsh - Tenants defender

28 Aug 08
The head of the new social housing regulatory body talks to Neil Merrick about how he intends to fundamentally challenge the way that housing associations operate

29 August 2008

The head of the new social housing regulatory body talks to Neil Merrick about how he intends to fundamentally challenge the way that housing associations operate

Two months ago, Peter Marsh stood up in front of housing professionals and made what, on the face of it, was a fairly damning criticism of the organisation where he works. He said that the Housing Corporation was too close to registered social landlords as a regulator, and at times behaved more as

'custodian of the club' rather than championing tenants.

Such an observation might have been less remarkable if it had not come from the corporation's own deputy chief executive during a conference debate on the Tenant Services Authority, the body that

is poised to take over the corporation's regulatory powers.

But within a week of his speech at the Chartered Institute of Housing's conference, Marsh had attended a final interview for the post of chief executive of the TSA and been offered the opportunity to show that the new authority will do better.

Things have certainly moved quickly for Marsh who, since July 1, has combined his post at the corporation with that of chief executive-designate for the TSA.

Up until three years ago, when he moved to the corporation as director of resources, his knowledge of housing was fairly limited. At the time he was deputy principal of City and Islington College, London, and had spent seven years working in further education.

Asked during the job interview to compare the Housing Corporation's £2bn annual budget with the millions of pounds normally associated with a college, he replied rather flippantly that it was 'only three more noughts'.

Indeed, within weeks of taking the post, he realised that finance at the corporation was easier to get to grips with than FE's convoluted funding system.

The next two years were exhilarating, as Marsh led the corporation's submission for the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review and, having encouraged the Treasury to fund more homes for social renting and low-cost ownership, successfully persuaded RSLs to borrow more from private lenders and rely less on grants.

By last summer, the corporation's days were numbered after the Cave review recommended a new independent regulator for social housing. Marsh was promoted to deputy chief executive in the reshuffle that followed the departure of chief executive Jon Rouse, but by the start of 2008 the only major decision facing him was what he should do next.

After working as deputy principal of two colleges and as deputy at the corporation, Marsh admits it feels slightly strange to be taking the top post at the TSA. 'I've been number two in three or four different places,' he says. 'It already feels very different and to some extent a little more lonely. The buck stops in one place after a while.'

In the same way as Marsh challenges the assumption that only pupils who fail in school end up in further education, so he is keen to show that it is not only the 'feckless' who live in social housing. 'From December, everything will be

done on the basis of how we can best benefit tenants. It will fundamentally challenge the way that housing associations operate.'

Not surprisingly, Marsh dismisses the idea that the creation of the TSA and the Homes & Communities Agency, and the disappearance of the corporation and English Partnerships, is simply another reorganisation of quangos.

Just as the HCA will demand more of RSLs and the other bodies that it funds for house-building and regeneration programmes, so the TSA will expect housing associations, and eventually local authority landlords, to improve the

service that they provide to tenants.

A new regulatory framework will be in place by September 2009, although the 'traffic light' system used by the corporation could be phased out far sooner. But Marsh insists that the new authority is not looking to harass social landlords.

'If a provider has good tenant engagement and a healthy balance sheet, they shouldn't see the regulator year by year,' he says. 'The important thing is to reward excellence as much as punish poor performance.'

Brought up in a Basingstoke council house, Marsh spent his early life in either Hampshire or the north of England, depending on his parents' movements. After attending a high school in Cumbria, he returned south to Farnborough Sixth Form College.

He briefly flirted with student politics at Newcastle University, chairing the Labour club and being elected vice-president of the students' union, where he was responsible for finance. But he quickly rejected politics in favour of public administration. 'All the enjoyable debates came to nothing because the people behind the purse strings were ignoring you,' he recalls.

His first job was with the Audit Commission, auditing local authorities and the NHS in the North East. Most of his work involved 'finding out other people's mistakes', but he was still passionate about finance. 'The people who are in charge of public finance are exceptionally privileged,' he says.

A CIPFA member since 1996, Marsh spent 18 months with KPMG as field manager of its public sector team before taking up the deputy principal's post at Gateshead College. Two years later, he headed south again to work

as deputy principal at City and Islington College.

During his four years at City and Islington, Marsh oversaw a £60m capital programme that included selling sites for 350 homes. But he tried not to overlook the fact that he was working in education by taking a part-time teacher training course. 'The job was fantastic,' he says. 'The college had 27,000 students, including some of the most deprived in London. It was brilliant to be part of what is a second-chance sector.'

According to Jon Rouse, now the chief executive of the London Borough of Croydon, Marsh has both a strong analytical brain and tremendous people skills. 'It is very unusual to have these two things in combination,' says Rouse.

After joining the Housing Corporation in 2005, Marsh quickly proved to be chief executive material. 'People want to go where he leads,' says Rouse. 'On the analytical side, he impressed the Treasury. Enough said.'

From a council perspective, Rouse wants the Tenant Services Authority to extend to local authorities as soon as possible. He remains unconcerned by Marsh's wish to enforce tougher standards. 'The regulator creates the climate in which finance flows,' he says. 'Nobody should lose sight of the fact that, if you are not providing a good climate for investment, not much housing will be built.'

While the TSA will regulate social landlords, the Audit Commission will continue to carry out inspections for at least two years. As the TSA's chief executive, Marsh will be accountable to its board and Parliament, but is not expecting much interference from ministers. 'I want to enjoy a good relationship with ministers but the power for them to intervene is significantly reduced,' he says.

Last year, after his partner was offered a job in Hampshire, Marsh moved from north London to live in Winchester. He makes the most of the more rural lifestyle while commuting to the capital. 'Before I catch the train to work, I take the dog for a walk and there are deer jumping in the fields,' he says.

By moving from London, Marsh is also far closer to his boat, on the River Beaulieu in the New Forest. But opportunities for leisure will be fairly restricted in the months leading up to the launch of the TSA, not to mention afterwards.

'My days were already fairly long,' he says. 'Now I have written off every weekday evening for the next five years.


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