Finding the skills for a full house

By Martin Ford | 24 July 2019

The prayers of many in local government were answered when the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) borrowing cap was lifted, creating the potential for a new wave of housebuilding by local authorities.

Even before last year’s momentous announcement, councils were establishing wholly-owned companies to build and invest in both social and private housing.

Although the passion and ability of professionals in the sector is unquestionable, there remains one problem – there simply aren’t enough of them at a time when they are needed more than ever.

A group of senior figures in social and public sector housing gathered recently in the City for a round table discussion hosted by Penna.

There was a consensus that ‘a real step-change’ – as one delegate put it – was required.

‘There’s a shift in public supply coming – to be ready or not is in our grasp,’ they added.

Another said: ‘I think there’s a role for the council in doing non-direct social housing. There’s broad political support for councils housebuilding, but there isn’t a reliable track record on the ability to deliver that.

‘There will be lots of houses built, the question is will it be part of a good, sustainable growth agenda?’

The delegates agreed that competition to recruit the right people with the right skills was proving to be an issue.

One speaker said: ‘We don’t poach from anywhere, but it’s a real issue – we are squabbling for talent.

‘Our workforce is not representative of our communities. There’s a real problem bringing in talent from the community.

‘We have a limited pool of people, those of us in the sector need to work together. Collaboration is the answer.’

Another added: ‘Across the board, any candidate with technical skill is difficult to source. From development director down to project managers, it’s very difficult.’

The public sector also finds itself outgunned by their private counterparts.

‘We are never going to get properly qualified people, because they can go to the private sector and get paid three times the salary,’ said one delegate.

And the problems aren’t just financial.

‘Candidates who have the skill set are nervous that a change in the administration could mean projects are cancelled and they are kicked out on their bottom,’ said another.

The discussion turned to potential solutions to the recruitment crisis.

‘The industry has got an image problem – it’s not very sexy. It doesn’t surprise me at all young people don’t go down that path,’ a speaker said.

A second told the meeting: ‘A lot of people in local government haven’t moved with the times. The fact I’m still in work at my age is an indictment of the organisation. Some organisations have had people in place for 25 years – it means nothing has ever moved on.’

Another offered: ‘It’s not seen as an interesting job for young people to go into. I don’t see a lot of succession planning in the sector.

‘We need to grow our own. Now is the time. It’s high on the agenda and we don’t have the skills in the sector. The risk is we fail to deliver.’

The sentiment about investing in youth now to reap dividends in the future was shared by others.

‘Work experience is the best way to get them interested,’ said another delegate. ‘It is a fundamental thing we are missing out on.’

Another said that young people with an ability to plan and the right attitude should be sought: ‘They might not be academic, but there are other ways of contributing. If we are prepared to invest in training, they will be ready to work in a year but it’s seen as too risky.’

One delegate offered their own experience of working with work experience students.

‘Not only did they want to put back into their community, they had an effect on their colleagues with the questions they asked,’ they said.

Another believed that short-term success could inspire young people to join the sector.

‘We have an opportunity to do something spectacular. People will want to work in it if we deliver on it.’

Penna round table attendees

Alan Baldwin, Interim director housing development – Ealing LBC

Catherine Diamond, Corporate services director – Local Space

Tom Bremner, Housing transformation project manager – Croydon Council

Ken Lyon, Assistant CEO (housing delivery) – South Kesteven DC

Jens Gemmel, Interim digitisation programme director – Westminster City Council

Liz Hamlet, Board member – Chislehurst and Sidcup Housing Association

Ernie Gray, Programme manager, – Camden LBC

Ben Freeman, CFO – Tritax Management

Tom Walker, Deputy CEO – Homes England

Mike Burton, Editorial director – The MJ (Chair)

Serena Chanmugam, Penna

Philippa Watkins, Penna

Ben Cox, Penna

Toni Hall, Penna

Julie Towers, Penna

Ruth Lane, Penna

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