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Interview: How to increase capacity and build at scale

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Local planning authorities need a “regeneration of skills and expertise” as they look to build housing at a rate not seen in almost 50 years, according to the director of Public Practice, a social enterprise for improved planning.

Chief executive Finn Williams argues that many planning departments, as they currently operate, will find it difficult to build at the scale and pace the government wants without the recruitment of more staff with the skills required to build.

Mr Williams said: “Local authorities are fishing from a diminishing recruitment pool and so existing officers are being paid more and more. We need a new recruitment model and a new stream of talent into the sector. That’s what we are about.”

The social entrprise Public Practice was set up to help local authorities attract and retain skilled planning officers. It is co-founded by the Local Government Association, Future Cities Catapult, Peabody and the Mayor of London, and launched its first “cohort” of 17 associates in May. Public Practice is now on the look-out for new councils to work with for its second cohort in 2019.

Part of the problem is that local authorities do not currently retain sufficient numbers of experts within their own departments, choosing instead to hire consultants from the private sector.

In 1976, 49% of all architects in the UK worked for the public sector, while today that number has receded to just 0.9%.

Mr Williams said: “Architects’ roles have been divided up now and most of this work is now done by contractors, not councils. That has broken the link between commissioning and construction.”

This breakdown has naturally led to various complications, as culpability and ownership of various functions becomes blurred. When the failed contractor Carillion went into liquidation, for example, it emerged that large amounts of legally required paperwork, such as certified contracts and fire strategies, had not been completed, leaving councils reponsible when services were returned in-house.

The last time that councils built large numbers of housing units, they employed thousands of experts who deployed their knowledge over vast areas of policy and implementation. These roles have now been divided up into various departments which are sometimes even contracted outside of the public sector, leading to a weakened ability for authorities to respond to problems.

Mr Williams said: “Outsourcing was seen as a way of reducing exposure to risk, but now contracts are going wrong and putting all your eggs in one basket is seen as a riskier approach than having more skills in-house.

While he emphasises that public-private partnerships are “important” and some expertise has “to be brought in from outside”, Mr Williams also said strengthening in-house skills “will improve everything”.

“If all you’re doing is commissioning then you don’t learn from doing,” he said.

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