The rebranded agency has been given billions of new funds and a mandate to unleash its considerable statutory powers in pursuit of housing growth. Chief executive Nick Walkley says it will support proactive planning authorities and challenge the rest.

Last week the government officially relaunched the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) as Homes England, with a mandate to use its significant statutory powers to help local authorities boost housing delivery.

The initial announcement of this change had been one of the centrepieces of chancellor Philip Hammond’s first autumn Budget. In the same month, communities secretary Sajid Javid said that he wanted the organisation to be “less cautious, to be more aggressive, and to be more muscular.” But what is the change likely to mean for local authorities and applicants?

The HCA was set up by Labour in 2008 to bring regeneration, planning, development and social housing resources in England into the hands of a single housing super-agency. It inherited significant statutory planning powers, such as compulsory purchase and plan-making, from its predecessor bodies.

However, it has rarely used these powers, and in recent years has focused primarily on administering government programmes, such as the Help to Buy programme supporting purchases of new build homes, and on developing its own land assets. It has disbanded its 30-strong ATLAS team that provided planning advice on large scale development.

Homes England chief executive Nick Walkley told Planning last week that the new body would grow to offer a “full range of development skills” to assist local authorities, and have a remit to use its statutory powers.

These “development skills” will include advice, funding, assistance with plan-making and masterplanning, and potentially the ability to step in and buy land and undertake compulsory purchase orders (CPOs).

Walkley said: “Like the HCA, Homes England will have very significant powers – but it’s the mandate to use them that’s important. We’re being asked to be activist.”

In the Budget, Hammond set up a £1.1bn Land Assembly Fund, put £8bn into a housing guarantee fund designed to support SME and build-to-rent developers and added £2bn to the Affordable Homes Programme – all of which will be administered by Homes England.

Walkley said: “What is really different is the combination of these [statutory] powers with the ability to invest that Homes England now has. We can offer really effective financial and technical brokerage [for local authorities].”

The body has an explicit remit to help move housing output toward the government’s 300,000 homes a year target. Walkley said this new mandate will mean directing funding and support to those individual authorities, combined authorities and elected mayors seen as proactive in driving forward housing supply.

“It’s about building a coalition of the willing,” he said. The flip side of this is understood to be that those authorities less proactive on housing will get less funding and support.

However, that doesn’t mean authorities can assume Homes England will sit back while local housing targets are missed. Whereas up till now a clear hierarchy saw the HCA working to support objectives set locally, Walkley said Homes England will have a remit to challenge those authorities where, in his words, “pace is slow”.

This could even mean – in exceptional cases, and with explicit ministerial approval – Homes England using its statutory powers in the face of local opposition, Walkley said. “This means asking searching questions”, he said, “and being challenging with those that are not moving forward, and in some cases it will mean the use of statutory powers.”

Walkley said Homes England would also look to help any local authorities without a plan to get the plan-making process up and running, though he added: “We certainly wouldn’t aim to be a planning authority in the long run.”

Nicky Linihan, housing delivery specialist at the Planning Officers’ Society, welcomed the additional resources to support the delivery of housing, but said: “I hope this will be through positive collaboration with local authorities and communities”.

Walkley plans to reinstate the ability to advise local authorities progressing large applications, lost with the disbanding of ATLAS. Stephen Hill, a former member of the ATLAS team, now a director at consultant Hyas, said: “I can see this being really effective in moving sites forward, as local authorities have a lack of skills, knowledge and resources in proactive development.

“But expanding to offer all this will be quite a challenge. The acid test will be if the agency puts its money where its mouth is in terms of resources and skills.”

Walkey said recruitment of staff, including planners and surveyors, will start quickly, though he is still discussing with government the long-term structure and staffing of the new organisation. In addition, it may partner with commercial consultants to deliver some services, he added.

“We’ll be recruiting very quickly to fill short-term capacity gaps. But there’s a significant organisation design process still ongoing. We know the number of people is going up and it will mean growth in the technical capacity. But we don’t want to be a big hulking organisation, and we want to support capacity growth in local authorities and other bodies,” Walkley said.

In particular, Walkley said that Homes England’s new range of capabilities will allow it to have a much broader discussion with authorities than previously, where the focus has been on a narrow assessment of projects against specific funding programmes. Garden settlements will be a beneficiary, he says.

“Our organisation will be about achieving outcomes, not delivering funding programmes. The conversation with authorities will be ‘what’s the mix of funding and capabilities that can help move this forward?’ We’re really interested in talking with them about places, not projects,” he said.

Source: Joey Gardiner, Planning Resource, 18 January 2018

Local Comment: Homes England owns the Mollington Link site, behind the Transco site in Hind Street.  Now that the gasholders have gone, will Homes England use its powers of compulsory purchase, if necessary, to buy the Transco site and then deliver a significant mixed use development here, including more new housing? – Philip Barton