Developing talent for a growing housing agenda

By Helen Anderson | 21 July 2020

Housing demand remains at the top of the priority list for many local authorities across England. With the Government promising ‘a new generation of council homes’, there has been a clear increase in councils expanding their plans for housing delivery across the past 12 months. The Treasury estimate that local authority housebuilding will soon reach 10,000 units per year, so there is a growing need for authorities to consider new ways of providing good quality housing for their communities.

Some local councils are focusing on the need to invest in their existing housing stock to ensure the safest and highest quality of living for residents, with the spotlight particularly pointing at many London borough councils in a post-Grenfell context.

An increasing number of authorities are bidding for national grants being offered by grant-funding bodies (Homes England and the GLA) to help fund their housebuilding programmes. In addition, the use of right to buy receipts and the lifting of ‘borrowing caps’ has eased funding restrictions for local councils, driving the impetus for many authorities to build new council housing for the first time in decades.

While ambitions and targets are high, people resources – both interim and permanent – are lacking. We have seen a recent increase in demand for specialist senior development professionals to lead council housebuilding programmes at pace and scale. As local authorities often have less experience of housebuilding without the aid of a development partner – especially as direct housebuilding is and will continue to be a new venture for many councils – we are seeing that there is a lack of ‘ready made’ talent on a national scale within local government. So, the need to broaden the search and potentially cast a wider net outside of the sector is perhaps something to be considered.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I have had some fascinating conversations with development professionals from various sectors, including the private sector who, typically, wouldn’t consider a move into local government due to salary restrictions. However, at this time we are finding that the idea of working for a local authority is highly attractive for some people outside of the sector, largely due to the scale of the challenge and the fact that new build programmes like these haven’t been delivered for many years.

These opportunities are often seen as career-defining roles. For other candidates, the stability of working in the public sector along with local government pensions are huge draws, particularly for more experienced individuals.

In my experience, when starting a search for talent in a housing development context, having an open mind about the candidate’s background will help increase quality and quantity of response. There are few development professionals in the current marketplace that are already operating at head of service or director level within local authorities, however, there are several individuals working in other environments that could potentially make the step up with help.

Experienced senior development managers from wider sectors can be attracted if they know you will welcome them; and the process can be developed to test their ability to step up into a lead delivery role. I often hear the phrase ‘grow your own’ in relation to talent management and succession planning, which is a theory I personally champion. But to make it happen you need to be open minded and prepared to support from the outset. Employers that do this successfully will retain talent effectively and create an attractive proposition for their brand in the market.

Another rich field of potential candidates lies in the registered provider (RP) space. Senior development professionals in RPs often have a great deal of experience in leading large-scale housing programmes and face very similar challenges to those in local authorities. In our experience, testing the ability to transition from RP into a local authority is worth exploring as it can bring different and more diverse candidates.

There are several other talent pools to explore in addition to those listed here –– and it is important to keep an open mind about new talent joining your organisation. Ultimately, you should determine whether they have the right credentials to deliver a successful housebuilding programme. The rest they can learn through coaching, mentoring and effective peer support.

If you want to build houses, you need to build your own talent pipeline too.

Helen Anderson is a consultant at Penna

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