In 2008, ministers merged the Housing Corporation with English Partnerships to create a new housing and regeneration body: the Homes and Communities Agency. When Bob Kerslake was brought in to lead the new organisation, Housing Corporation chief executive Steve Douglas turned down the offer to lead a new housing association regulator.
Instead, he set up a housing consultancy with former Newham Council chief executive Chris Wood – and was quickly afflicted by culture shock. “I didn’t have support staff any more, and I had to learn how to make my own appointments, type my own emails and be self-sufficient,” he remembers. “Also, I realised how much respect I had derived from having the name of a large government body behind me. I had to build respect and go right back to basics to build new relationships.”
As his first assignment, he took on the role of interim corporate director of neighbourhoods and regeneration at the London Borough of Hackney, responsible for everything from street cleaning to preparations for the 2012 Olympic Games. Staff were welcoming, he says, and his experience managing housing associations gave new colleagues confidence in his ability to deliver.
Douglas says his experience in the civil service equipped him well for life in the council: “If I had made the move from a housing association to a local authority I might have found the democratic control challenging, but having worked with government I was entirely comfortable with that.” His previous experience in a delivery role made it easier to get to grips with a very target-driven world, he adds.
Operating in the private sector has also instilled new discipline within him: “I now have to deliver to even more exacting timescales, and be very clear on what a bottom line looks like. If you are unable to pay your employees, that creates a very different pressure to one where you have to report a deficit in a budget from central government.”
Six years after leaving government, he says that gaining experience in a wide variety of organisations has left him entirely comfortable in the public, private and charity sectors. “It’s the best of all worlds,” he concludes.
Steve Douglas was previously chief executive of the Housing Corporation and is now a consultant.