Homes England executive director for land Stephen Kinsella told the Planning for Housing conference, organised by Planning, that the agency aims to double the 750 staff it employed in 2017 to 1,500 nationwide within the next 18 months, including 150 in a current recruitment round.
He said the reinforcements are needed to build an "activist and interventionist" agency capable of driving up supply to meet the government's target "and do it sustainably". "It's a thrilling and daunting task, but we are making tremendous progress," he told the event.
Kinsella said the next couple of months will see a series of announcements on initiatives by several government departments to capitalise on opportunities for unlocking publicly-owned land, including some operational sites, for new housing development. Overall, he reported, Homes England is looking to take forward 220 development sites over the next three years.
In the same session, Andrew Taylor, head of planning at developer Countryside Properties, said private housebuilders need a "consistent voice" from officers and councillors on their commitment to long-term development. "We need to engage with councils to ensure a clear understanding of what we want to achieve," he said.
Apart from his own difficulties in hiring sufficient skilled staff, Taylor pointed to a shortage of experienced planners in local authorities to respond to applications. "It's about training and bringing people into the profession," he said. "We have had examples of councils handing back planning performance agreement money because they can't find the officers to carry out the tasks agreed."
Pragmatism is another key element in responding to changing circumstances around long-term housebuilding projects, Taylor added. "We will always need to amend any scheme with a 20-year life cycle, so relationships with the local authority and trust in the case officer are key. Similarly, we as developers need to respond to local authorities' concerns in a timely way."
Anne Clements, a planning director at consultancy WYG, agreed that local authorities have a critical part to play in driving development forward. "It's time councils identified truly deliverable sites and tapped into the significant skills available in the private sector to bring them forward. You have to corral members to make sure they're fully engaged and that officers understand where their decision-making powers start and end," she advised.
Describing experience from her previous role as planning director at developer Quintain on the Wembley Park regeneration project in west London, Clements said successive leading councillors at the London Borough of Brent have played a key role in keeping the momentum going on the scheme since it started in 2002.
"A new place for London is emerging that is the result of a clear vision, pragmatism and everyone from members to officers knowing their role," she concluded.