Founder & Non-Executive Director, Argent Group (1981–Present)
Argent Group of Companies was formed in September 1981, it was listed on the Stock Exchange in 1994. It then went private through a sale to the British Telecom Pension Scheme in 1997 at a 50% premium to the listing price three years prior. Argent entered into a series of personal joint ventures between the Freemans, key Argent staff and BTPS. Argent has been part of many joint ventures including King’s Cross and Brent Cross South.
Chair, Mayfield Market Towns Ltd (2012–Present)
MMT is a special purpose company seeking to create an exemplary new market town in West Sussex.
Owner & Publisher, Freeman Publishing PLC (2000–2005)
Total guide to the property industry–in print and online.
Producer, Argent Film and Television (1982–1983)
Film production for Channel Four.
Business Non-Executive Director Roles;
Property industry roles;
1. What motivated you to apply for this role, and what specific experiences would you bring to it?
For nearly 40 years I have been interested in how Central Government, Local Government, landholders and developers can co-operate to develop better housing and communities. As a placemaker, I understand the needs for sustainable housing that supports communities. This is reflected in the report that I have produced: “The Housing Sprint–How to Solve the Housing Crisis” published in March 2020. I believe strongly that the landowners and developers have a duty to make developments, especially large ones, contribute to the progression of the wider community.
2. If appointed are there specific areas within your new responsibilities where you will need to acquire new skills or knowledge?
My career has given me many skills and attributes that I can bring to this role. However, I believe in constant learning and development and the priorities I have identified to equip me to be successful are:-
i)The structure and key personnel at HE;
ii)HE’s relationship holders in MHCLG and Treasury;
iii)Feedback from a sample of other key stakeholders (Housing Associations, housebuilders, Local Authorities)
3. How were you recruited? Were you encouraged to apply, and if so, by whom?
I was initially approached by Lord Nash, Government’s lead independent director. He asked whether there were any potential candidates I would suggest and I suggested two. However, on investigation into the roles and responsibilities I realised that this was an opportunity where I might be able to make a real contribution and I was asked whether I would consider applying. I was already known to MHCLG from my work on the Housing Sprint, The Home of 2030 and the Holocaust Memorial. I decided to apply via the advertised route and was formally interviewed alongside other candidates.
4. Do you currently or potentially have any business, financial or other non-pecuniary interests or commitments, that might give rise to the perception of a conflict of interest if you are appointed? How do you intend to resolve any potential conflicts of interests if you are appointed?
I have two significant property interests that should be disclosed and managed.
My brother and I founded Argent in 1981. In 1998, we both stepped down from full time roles as joint chief executives a year after the purchase of the then-listed company by the British Telecom Pension Scheme. After 1998, we became co-investors in all Argent development projects including King’s Cross. I am still a director of the key Argent companies and of the King’s Cross ownership vehicle and my family are investors in it. The only Argent project in which Homes England has an interest is Brent Cross South (BXS). Homes England has recently signed a £148m loan to Argent Related for this project. Although I receive Board reports at the Argent Board with responsibility for delivering BXS, neither I nor my brother have an investment in BXS.
2. Mayfield Market Towns Ltd. (MMT)
I am chairman of MMT and became shareholder when it was formed seven years ago. MMT’s business has been promoting a new town of 7,000–10,000 homes in West Sussex. We control approximately 1,000 acres at very low purchase prices that enable us to provide the entire social and physical infrastructure at a cost of £304m without the need for grant. Most of the land is in Horsham DC, some is in Mid Sussex DC. Mid Sussex is opposed but Horsham has included Mayfields in a Reg. 18 list and will be deciding how to slim the Reg. 18 list down to a smaller number of sites for the Council to promote at a Local Plan Inquiry next year. The MMT Board believes that we have a compelling offer. We are not looking for grant from Homes England as the development is viable without. However, in time our site will form part of the broad market competition for Homes England’s Northern Arc at Burgess Hill, five miles away. It is also competition in terms of allocation for Reg. 19 in Horsham where Homes England are part of a consortium promoting “West of Ifield”. If I became Chair of Homes England, I should not receive papers concerning West of Ifield and Burgess Hill while I remain involved in Mayfields.
5. If appointed what professional or voluntary work commitments will you continue to undertake, or do you intend to take on, alongside your new role? How will you reconcile these with your new role?
The appointment is for two days a week although I suspect that more time will be necessary, especially in the first year. I have a number of other non-executive positions and am currently on two charity boards (Marlborough College and UKHMF). The time commitments are compatible with the agreed time commitment to HE.
6. Have you ever held any post or undertaken any activity that might cast doubt on your political impartiality? If so how will you demonstrate your political impartiality in the role if appointed?
7. Do you intend to serve your full term of office? Do you intend to seek re-appointment?
Yes. Re-appointment is three years away and I would have to make a judgement closer to the time but allowing adequate time to find a successor if that was the appropriate decision for all concerned.
My answers to questions 8–14 below are all interim answers given that I am currently an outsider to HE. I would be happy to provide fuller answers in 3–6 months’ time.
8. If appointed what will be your main priorities on taking up the role?
8.1. To build a strong relationship between HE, Ministers, MHCLG, The Treasury and the Select Committee.
8.2. To enable HE to act more decisively in aiding the supply of new housing of the widest possible mix of tenures.
8.3. To ensure that HE acts as a catalyst in terms of better design, sustainability and placemaking.
8.4. To distinguish clearly between Government money that needs to be (i) in the form of grant where no direct payback is required/expected; (ii) secure long term loans at low interest rates; and (iii) mezzanine/equity participations where HE has upside commensurate with role.
8.5. Ensuring HE is recognised as a trusted counterparty to Local Authorities, housebuilders, Housing Associations and the debt market.
9. What criteria should the Committee use to judge Home England’s performance over your term of office, if appointed?
Overall, HE must be seen to have made an important contribution to the housing market in line with 8. above. At this point I am unable to suggest precise hurdles. While the HE strategic plan 2018–2023 gives a clear direction and set of objectives, it will be vital to monitor the impact of the current Coronavirus virus. We will need to respond to changing demands without losing sight of HE’s fundamental aims.
10. How much institutional independence from MHCLG do you believe Homes England needs?
Government has established Homes England as an Arms’ Length Body. The consensus (which I agree with) therefore being that engaging with the market and wider stakeholders as an independent body is the most effective approach to delivering Government’s housing policy. However, it is MHCLG’s Ministers who are ultimately responsible for Homes England. As the Framework Agreement with the department states, it is essential Homes England maintains an open and constructive relationship to support the Agency to deliver its strategic objectives. I see it as being important to work in partnership with MHCLG Ministers to ensure we agree deliverable housing policy; put strong governance and oversight arrangements in place; and ensure HE has the skills and resources in place to deliver. These underpinning principles then allow for HE to have the operational freedoms and independence needed to drive progress.
11. How much influence do you believe Homes England has in determining targets and funding for affordable housing?
My impression is that Homes England is responsible for implementing policy rather than setting it. Ideally, a body responsible for implementation will be able to feed in views based on its experience to policy recommendations.
12. How do you assess the public profile and reputation of Homes England?
While the majority of the population might not recognise HE as an organisation that is not of great significance as long as within the housing industry it is a trusted partner. What is important is that it is viewed by stakeholders as an enabler in supporting delivery of a wide range of market and affordable and being proactive in assisting SME’s within the construction industry.
13. What risks do you think Homes England will face over your term of office, if appointed? How do you intend to manage them?
There are the risks that any private sector operator runs in assembling and promoting land and taking on debt or providing finance. I have nearly 40 years’ experience of handling these and in assembling the right teams to manage the risks.
HE also has the risks (and advantages) that come from public scrutiny, statutory powers and public sector finance.
As regards the latter, the imminent public spending review and the current Covid-induced financial crisis will be challenging. Overall though, the aim of addressing the Housing Crisis is compatible with the economic need to get Britain building.
14. How would you rate Homes England’s performance on the disposal of public land?
I need to get behind press comment on whether HE could bring more plots forward quicker by understanding more about their land portfolio. Where it is. Is it ready to go? How much demand there is in the area. Whether it is best brought forward in combination with nearby land. Obviously, with the exception of the 10–20 largest sites, this would not be on a case-by-case basis but by general discussion with the executives in London and the regional offices and from discussions with agents and developers.
Published: 15 October 2020