The most important thing about a strategic plan is to have one. So says Nick Walkley, chief executive of Homes England, who does indeed have a new strategic plan.
‘Getting Whitehall to sign off on proposals that stretch beyond what can be a very narrow time horizon at the moment feels quite important, not just for the organisation but for the sector,’ he says. While the political bandwidth may be dominated by Brexit, housing is the next priority for the Prime Minister, giving it resonance.
Drafting the plan survived a change of secretary of state and three housing ministers. ‘In a way, that gives us some confidence that this is quite sticky,’ Mr Walkley explains.
‘There is quite a strong theme through it of this being the move away from an agency that has felt quite centrist, doing things to people, to a mantra around “how do we lead this place?” You can’t get to 300,000 [homes built] by thinking a central government agency is going to do it.’
The new direction of travel is hardly surprising, given that Mr Walkley has been chief executive of both Haringey and Barnet LBCs with a local government career that stretches back even further. He admits he would find it hard to carry out a centralising plan but claims the Government ‘knew quite a lot about what they were getting’ when they hired him – a localist.
But despite supporting house building at a local level, there is a lot of work to be done to rebuild capacity for everything from planning through to commercial negotiation within local government. ‘It’s not a criticism of local government, it’s just not done it at any scale for a long time. It now needs to do it,’ he says.
Homes England are now working with the Local Government Association to rebuild that capacity, some of which was always patchy and some which was stripped out by austerity.
For developers, planning applications are becoming less of an issue, but conditions of building are a barrier. Some of that is to do with commercial skills in councils.
The agency is adapting to try to work with local government. It’s building data and analytics capacity to share information around pricing, land values and section 106 agreements to share across the sector.
It also plans to take on the role of ‘master developer’ for some sites, acquiring ‘parcels’ of land to help generate better value, getting the infrastructure sorted – pushing forwards on developments that have stalled due to the complexity and land locked up in commercial agreements.
‘That way we can support in bringing the right parties together,’ Mr Walkley says, citing the example of a Burgess Hill development that stalled for a decade before it was unlocked (see case study).
The same is true of developing on public sector land. ‘One of the things I’m fond of saying is, there is a slightly naive view that parcels of public sector land come perfectly formed and ready for housing. In fact, they don’t.’
They are often in the wrong place too.
It is not just his agency that needs a plan. ‘A local authority’s prime duty if it is concerned about housing is to make sure it’s got a local plan, it’s got a five year supply so that land is being made available for development,’ he says. Who develops it and the type of development comes from understanding what is needed in the local area.
But the lack of a local plan will always hamper the ability to move forward. ‘It’s quite difficult for the agency to hold conversations about housing supply when there isn’t a five-year strategic plan.’ While the picture is improving, he says he was really surprised how many places didn’t have that when he arrived in post 18 months ago.
‘There’s also something about whether there is a strong connection between planning, local strategy, and the local economy and is that a narrative that is widely shared?’
Mr Walkley suggests he probably ought to be eating humble pie with the housing associations in the places he was a chief executive as he now sees it as a vital relationship. ‘They’ve got huge capacity and capability, they are massive providers in their own right and that partnership has got further to go in terms of being much more effective.’
Brexit is still an unknown quantity. The real issue is sourcing development cash. But while foreign investors are curious about Brexit there is no sign it means a withdrawal from the UK market.
As for the skills shortage, it is far wider than the availability of European labour. ‘It’s about the wider issues of the ageing workforce, low skills, the unattractiveness of the profession, how unmodernised construction – particularly house building – is. There are enormous challenges, not just for the agency but for local and central government to tackle there.’
Coming from a local government background, he says he was shocked by the lack of diversity in the construction industry, which is populated at a senior level purely by middle aged white men.
There is a lot of ‘government appetite’ for innovation at the moment and house builders are now ‘significantly concerned’ enough to think about how to modernise construction.
And it’s not just building methods. Beauty is now in the eye of the storm, with housing minister Kit Malthouse writing recently in The MJ (see The MJ, 7 November 2018), about the former NIMBYs who are willing to have ‘something lovely in my back yard’.
Design is, Mr Walkley says, ‘really, really important’. ‘We’ve got to do more to challenge issues of quality, placemaking, understanding how you make homes fit for purpose for lifetime use, and do that in a way that we don’t just end up with a bunch of checklists.’
‘We have a huge responsibility. We are building a new town outside Cambridge. That’s a fantastically exciting thing, but also by God you’ve got to worry about getting that right.’
Despite concerns that 80% of the latest round of housing cash is to go to areas where affordability problems are most acute – often the more affluent areas – he claims that is just the new cash. All existing funds are un-ringfenced and the real victory was ‘a significant ratcheting up in the cash stakes’. It’s also ‘about prioritisation and political choices’.
‘There is an entirely rational argument that you target to the areas that are least affordable. If you don’t they will continue to become more unaffordable.’ And it also puts Homes England firmly in the housing supply business, rather than making it an agency of broader economic regeneration. They will, he says, proactively support the combined authorities who will be the ones to lead on economic growth for their respective areas.
Homes England is changing the way it interacts with local government. A work in progress, it is not going to get everything right but he expects the sector ‘won’t be shy’ in telling him where he is going wrong.
After 18 months in central Government, he hasn’t fully adjusted to it. ‘These are two very different cultures and I now cringe a little bit at some of the approaches I used to take, trying to influence in Whitehall.
‘It’s an incredibly inter-connected place. I wish I’d been rather more thoughtful about some of my interactions because they probably got back to other departments before I got back to [Haringey LBC’s offices at] Wood Green.’
But he says: ‘There’s also real power in a local government conversation. The level of connectedness and understanding of communities is really, really important stuff for the sector and we shouldn’t be scared of saying it.’
Homes England Case Study
Unlocking land for development
Homes England worked with Mid Sussex DC and landowners and developers to acquire land in Burgess Hill in West Sussex, a 176 hectare site capable of delivering 3,080 new homes, and is a strategic priority in the recently adopted district plan.
The developers had successfully secured the allocation of the site via the local plan process and had worked closely with the local community to advance the scheme.
The site has been identified for more than a decade as a key location for housing. Due to the need for upfront strategic infrastructure and the complexities of land ownership, landowners and developers agreed to dispose of their interest to Homes England.
Homes England is now preparing the submission of an outline planning application and will bring forward early release of the first phases of 460 new homes alongside investing in strategic infrastructure to unlock the site for development.
The development will include the construction of two new primary schools, a secondary school and a range of leisure facilities to help build a community.