In December, after almost six years, Baroness Ford of Cunninghame will relinquish her role as chairman of regeneration agency English Partnerships (EP). But while her time at the helm will soon be up, her work will continue to define the regeneration sector as a whole for years to come.
Six years ago, when the Baroness was a Margaret, housing and regeneration minister Charlie Falconer gave Ford a blank sheet of paper and asked her to devise the perfect national regeneration agency. Since that time, EP has been transformed from a quango struggling to find a sense of purpose to a body highly regarded - both in government and the private sector - for its ability to deliver physical regeneration. But Ford kept working at that sheet of paper and late last month, in what was effectively her final act as English Partnerships chairman, she finally completed the task Falconer had set her.
Ford handed over a draft business plan for the new Homes and Communities Agency (HCA): a blueprint for a new type of regeneration body, combining the non-regulatory functions of affordable housing funder the Housing Corporation, EP, and some of the delivery work of the Department for Communities and Local Government. As she prepares to leave her post for the world of international banking - she's been taken on by the Royal Bank of Canada to run a regeneration and real estate team - Ford is reaching the end of a long road: since her childhood, she's been keenly aware of the importance and value of regeneration.
What Margaret Ford calls "the fire in the belly" was first lit in a landscape of post-industrial decline overseen by the harsh doctrines of Thatcherism. Brought up in a small town near Glasgow, she was inspired by watching her headteacher mother turn round a failing primary school in Kilbirnie, Ayrshire. This was a town that had the "heart ripped out of it" by the closure of the local steelworks, suffering 70 per cent unemployment. Rebuffed by the cash-strapped local authority, Ford's mother called on the resources of the community itself to keep the school going. Unemployed joiners and builders, the mums and dads of local kids, pitched in to carry out repairs. "She said: 'Look, this is our school. If we want to help the kids, we're going to have to do it ourselves'," remembers Ford. "And during that same period attainment levels shot up, and they started winning the Ayrshire county football championship. I remember her saying: 'If you can't go through something, you'd better go round it'. She just would not take 'no' for an answer."
Anyone who's worked with Ford will recognise that: 'won't take no for an answer' could be her catch phrase. Variously described by former colleagues as a "shrewd operator", a "fixer" and a "doer", she can be pretty intimidating. However, the same colleagues also say that she isn't the type to unnecessarily terrify her underlings: "You're left in no doubt who's boss," says one, "but she's also pretty approachable." It is these talents, honed in a bewildering array of public, private and trade union roles, that led to her "dream job" appointment at EP.
Luring Australian David Higgins from developer Lend Lease to be chief executive, Ford then set about reforming the agency. In 2002-03, the year she joined, EP missed 13 of its 14 corporate targets. Last year, it hit all of them fairly comfortably. And over that time she has persuaded ministers to sign off budget increases, taking EP's income from £167 million to £586 million, demonstrating her influence in the political sphere (she is widely known to be a close friend of John Prescott, though she strenuously denies that she is first and foremost a politician). It is fair to say that her tenure has generally been regarded as a success, despite real concerns from some that EP has shifted the weight of its work from north to south, and increasingly focused on new housebuilding at the expense of city-centre regeneration.
As Ford carries out her last role for the agency - that, as she puts it, of "midwife" to the new organisation - she is keen to counter common fears over the HCA: that it will only be involved in housebuilding in areas that already have reasonably high land values, for example, or that it will make property investments rather than give grants in the most deprived areas. The HCA will continue to give grants for the construction of social housing, she says, and to gap fund regeneration schemes where the land values mean private investment doesn't stack up. "Two or three of the investment lines we've been working on are what I would call core EP business," she says. "It will continue to support URCs, do significant mixed-use regeneration, and do significant work in town centres."
There is, however, likely to be radical change in the agency's relationship with the private sector. Where the HCA can make investments and recoup costs, she says, it will do so - for example, in big estate redevelopment schemes. And the way in which developers work with EP is likely to change: rather than making separate bids to develop each site that EP owns - a process that, Ford says, has been incredibly wasteful - the new agency may package up portfolios of sites and seek to develop long-term relationships with developers: "Can we not take a 'portfolio' approach, in which people jump a hurdle once, as it were, and then we'd have a conversation about a longer term relationship?" she says. Mini-competitions within this long-term partnering framework would then determine how any individual site is brought forward, she suggests, though she adds that this change is still under discussion with government.
Also under discussion, it seems, is the possibility of loosening the regime by which the Government funds and monitors the agency. Currently, it sets out - for example - how many homes must be built and acres of brownfield land reclaimed each year. Sources close to the discussions say that this framework encourages perverse behaviour, such as selling off land hastily in order to meet the annual targets. And while Ford won't comment on the detail, it is clear that she believes this issue needs to be addressed if the Government is to get the best use out of its limited housing cash. "It may be that targets and funding move from in-year, as they are at the moment, to being a bit more open, with a two to three year period," she says. "I think we and the department both understand that if we're going to deliver eco-towns, big sustainable urban extensions, these things take place over a much longer timeline, and we need to think about some more meaningful ways of measuring progress."
The Treasury is always nervous about granting longer-term funding, and this issue remains unresolved - but delays on such decisions are already causing concern in some quarters. In September, former housing minister Nick Raynsford hit out at the length of time it was taking to set up the HCA, arguing that it risked losing staff and momentum at a vital time. Ford responds, characteristically, by saying that she has since spoken to Raynsford to address his concerns (one suspects in a fairly robust and straightforward manner). "Nick is - as I am, to some degree - frustrated that the exercise is taking quite a long time, and he's quite right to articulate that view," she says. But she also maintains that his worries are unfounded. "I'm more than comfortable that we're bang on target, and that the concept of the agency as originally envisaged still has absolute integrity. I think I was able to reassure him that we haven't been cooling our heels here over the last year."
More than any other government agency, the HCA is going to be relied upon to deliver on the "three million homes" promise made by Prime Minister Gordon Brown over the summer. But when asked whether that level of housebuilding is achievable, Ford says she has more concerns over the planning system than the operation of the new agency. This, she says, is a subject she intends to comment on more when she's finally freed from the shackles of public service. Yet her words are already strong: "From EP's perspective when acting as a developer, we have had huge amounts of trouble getting even basic planning consent through the planning system. There's one place not a million miles from London where one planning application is sitting with the local authority - and it was lodged the first week I came into EP." While she won't divulge where this is, she says that "it isn't a complicated planning application. In many places at the moment, there is a bias to development control, or no development. If EP can't do it, what hope is there for your average developer?"
Leaving EP, Ford believes she can be content that she has achieved a good deal, despite the fact "we've still got some hellish places. Some of the tangible changes, particularly in some of the more deprived communities, have been massive, massive improvements." As Ford declaims her passion about this cause, one gets the distinct sense that she still has the "fire in the belly" - and woe betide any council planners who get in her way. Her ability to secure inflation-busting EP budget increases, political support for the HCA project, and her peerage demonstrate that her combination of guile, charm and determination has been hard for politicians - from John Prescott to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - to resist. So while EP has been subject to criticism over the years, it is likely that her presence, and the political credibility she has brought the sector, will be sorely missed.
1957: Born, Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland.
1984: Gains MPhil in economics from Glasgow University.
1982: Becomes Scottish organiser of the Banking Insurance and Finance
1987: Joins PricewaterhouseCoopers as management consultant.
1990: Becomes director of Scottish Homes.
1993: Founds training company Eglinton Management Centre.
2002: Appointed chair of English Partnerships.
2006: Made Baroness Ford of Cunninghame.
2007: Appointed managing director of the global infrastructure group at
the Royal Bank of Canada.