Butler’s Place: Deborah McLaughlin

Deborah McLaughlinHeather Butler meets Deborah McLaughlin, executive director North West for the Homes & Communities Agency.

Where are we?

The show flat at Royal Mills in Ancoats, it's a beautiful conversion and the apartments are lovely, in fact I'd quite like to stay over in this one.

It's a great example of the schemes we're supporting, not just for the first-time buyer market, they're for people downsizing and looking to move into the city. Ancoats has a slightly more comfortable, mature feel to it than some other areas, and we have the Hallé rehearsing in the old church next door.

What do you do?

We have a lot of land and property holdings in our ownership which we're looking to see developed. Someone has to invest first and sometimes we're in the position to do that, with loans or deferred land sale. We often bridge the gap between the developers, house builders, local authorities and investors. I spend a lot of time in London talking to investors about the opportunities in the North West. Outside of London, this is the region they are most excited about as we're seeing good asset value increase and 6.5% to 7% yields.

What's on your desk?

Some very exciting projects and incredible buildings, like former Lancaster Moor asylum in Lancaster which proved very difficult to bring to market without some HCA support. Now we've got Fred Storey and PJ Livesey involved and we put money into the demolition of obsolete buildings and asbestos removal. It's such a privilege to help bring beautiful old buildings back into use.

I also like to make time to visit the communities and the projects we're involved with. There's nothing better than seeing the smile on the face of someone who has moved into their new home.

How did you get started?

As a student in Manchester doing political science, I rented a flat in Hulme in a half-empty, crumbling concrete apartment block. It was desolate. When the council started its regeneration programme I was inspired. I applied to Manchester City Council and started working with the strategy team, looking at the regeneration framework and identifying investment opportunities. I suppose I've almost come full circle in that regard.

How come you're here?

The North West is my patch, I grew up in Urmston and live in Knutsford. I'd been with Manchester City Council for 26 years and was director of housing for a number of years. I also worked with the audit commission as housing lead. Then came this opportunity and I started with the agency on day one back in December 2008. My role is to fight for the North West in London, to show the investment market what we've got and to help bridge that North South gap.

What was a job well done?

Working with communities and landlords in Manchester. I'd be in Gorton on a Monday, Burnage on a Tuesday etc, talking to people, finding out and defining what they wanted. Some stock needed new kitchens and bathrooms, other areas such as Miles Platting needed much more, and we worked to secure the funding.

I set up the strategic housing partnership to bring all of the different landlords together with the council and the residents to focus on more than just rents and profits, but to look at the impact housing has on peoples lives. I'm very proud of that legacy.

And the tougher times?

The recession saw budgets slashed in half overnight, that meant we had to let some people go. It's not something I'd experienced before and wouldn't like to have to go through again. It's tough on the people left behind, many feel guilty. I've always had an open door policy but it's not always that easy to go and knock on the boss' door. So we started a weekly 'huddle' which continues today, where people can get things off their chest and know I'll be honest with them.

Do you ever relax?

Weekends are sacred. I prefer to work long days, usually 8 til 8, and get everything done in the week. On a Friday I'll take whoever's left in the office out, I figure if you're still working at 7pm on a Friday you deserve for me to buy you a drink.

I like to get away with my girlfriends and spending time with my two daughters and on Saturday I do a step class. I'm so uncoordinated that it takes huge concentration to keep upright, that's when my mind is completely somewhere else!

What's next?

We're looking at the roll out of the £1bn Build to Rent scheme. It's a great initiative to stimulate development, and the North West has seen the most interest outside London. The market is ripe, it's not just Manchester but Preston, Warrington, Liverpool.

And I'm looking forward to the opportunities being created by the disposal of surplus public land which the HCA will be taking on from 2015. Our aim will be to turn it very quickly, stimulating development of new homes and returning the receipts to the various government departments and profits to the treasury.

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