High-profile departures and tricky relations with its parent council have dogged Citywest Homes. But Simon Brandon finds new chief Mark Hoyland unfazed and impatient to help the Westminster ALMO move on
As Mark Hoyland keeps pointing out, he’s only been in the job a few weeks.
The new chief executive of Citywest Homes - Westminster Council’s arm’s-length management organisation - began work in February. Before that he worked at private house builder Rok for eight years, most recently as its commercial director. Given his leap from plc to public sector and the jump in rank, his repeated caveat is understandable.
Certainly he doesn’t appear completely at ease in his grand second-floor office overlooking Buckingham Palace’s garden - what the paparazzi wouldn’t give for that view. And he’s quite happy to let his head of communications, Lorna Whitehorn, take over with some frequency. ‘Lorna has to hold my hand in this, I’m afraid,’ he admits with a sheepish grin. ‘I hope you realise it’s very early days.’
He might not be settled, but that doesn’t dilute a genuine enthusiasm for the task ahead. Mr Hoyland imbues stock new-broom phrases - ‘I’m absolutely thrilled to be here’, or ‘what a fantastic challenge’ - with enough energy to lift them above the platitudinous.
His old boss, Rok chief executive Garvis Snook, certainly has faith that his former lieutenant has what it takes to run a highly successful ALMO in a borough where council housing has something of a chequered past. ‘I would think that [job] will suit Mark well,’ he says. ‘Whatever the task, Mark went at it with dedication and determination and had the drive to see it through to the finish.’
Citywest Homes is a top-performing ALMO that has remained a three- star organisation since its first Audit Commission inspection in 2003. But it hasn’t all been great news from the central London borough recently.
In October last year Westminster Council sacked Citywest’s chair, Dr Kevin Bond, who accused the council of ‘extreme interference’ in the ALMO’s financial and development affairs - an allegation strongly denied by the authority (Inside Housing, 11 November 2008).
Mr Hoyland sounds unfazed. ‘Open arms, I would say, has been [the council’s] approach to making sure we have a good relationship,’ he says. Asked where the boundary between council and ALMO should lie, he blinks. ‘I don’t see it as a clear boundary, I see it as a collaborative working relationship.’
Effect on morale
Dr Bond was not Citywest’s only high-profile departure of recent months. A few weeks prior to his sacking, Citywest’s chief executive Brian Johnson had left for Moat, while financial director Andy Kershaw joined private contractor AWE in November.
Morale among the 230 staff remains strong despite the sudden changes, according to the new incumbent: ‘I think people have got on with their daily jobs. I don’t sense any difficulties with the majority of staff, I really don’t,’ he says. ‘They are very excited about taking the organisation forward now.’
Mr Hoyland talks about moving forward a lot. While no organisation would embrace moving backwards, it’s not just rhetoric where many ALMOs - even those already in the three-star club - are concerned.
Citywest completed its decent homes programme in 2007 and waved goodbye to the extra funding it brought.
Last July Mr Johnson had warned of the need for a new funding model within three years.
Westminster’s ALMO has plumped for development as its new cash cow. It secured £36 million in grant last year to build 526 new homes in the borough.
Here at least the ex-developer sounds up to speed - though he’s cautious about the original plans. ‘We’re currently working up with the council which schemes are more viable than others in terms of the market we are facing,’ he says. ‘Whatever schemes we feel are viable, there will be an extensive planning and consultation process to go through. It’s really early days at the moment.’
Besides, Westminster’s development plans are only ‘part of a package’, he adds. ‘I don’t think it will be a sole avenue for us going forward.’ It’s left up to Ms Whitehorn to provide the details (suffice to say she believes the ALMO’s financial future is secure).
Where Mr Hoyland is happy to hold his own is when it comes to talking about his plans for Citywest. He mentions ‘customer service’ even more than the brevity of his tenure, and he does so with proper zeal.
He has, he says, been out and about already and has met tenants on three estates. ‘We need to listen to our customers,’ he says firmly. What did they have to say? There is a long pause. Ms Whitehorn is no help. ‘I think,’ he says eventually, ‘it’s all around expectation and how I’m going to look at managing the organisation… at the moment it’s very hard to respond to them on specifics other than to say we’ll be working hard on customer service, getting closer to the community and value for money.’
It is only sensible to tread a little carefully during your third week on the job, and perhaps Mr Hoyland’s reticence is positive after all. ‘He was always a great guy for the details,’ recalls Mr Snook. ‘He’s not one to rush into quick decisions; he takes time to gather the data first.’
How much time will Mr Hoyland need? ‘Come back in six months,’ he says at the door. ‘See what’s happening then.’
Where does a new chief executive take a three-star ALMO? Answer: out into the community.
‘My key aim is to look at taking customer service levels on a stage, really focusing on customer experience - rather than satisfying customers, I’d like them to be delighted with what we do,’ says Mr Hoyland.
His plan is to decentralise by moving staff out of Citywest HQ and into neighbourhood ‘hubs’, each serving smaller satellite offices.
‘When you really want to get closer to the customer base, there’s nothing quite like having people out in the field,’ he says. ‘We see the creation of hubs in the community with satellite offices as helping drive our customer services to a new level.’