As the festive season draws to a close it’s time to look at the big challenges for 2016. What would our columnist say to a new built environment minister about the year that lies ahead for the construction industry?

Richard McCarthy

The mince pies and turkey are long finished and the tree stands upturned in the recycling bin. This means one thing - it’s time to get cracking on what looks set to be a busy and exciting 2016.

The following is my new year’s letter to a fictional built environment minister, new to the brief, setting out what I believe to be at the top of the agenda for this year:

Minister, let’s start with new “devo deals” for big cities. With metro mayoral elections in the diary for 2017, Combined Authorities must use the next year to start setting the agenda. This means planning future economic growth, enterprise zones, developing local infrastructure, getting ready to maximise the benefits of HS2, removing barriers to housing supply and creating partnerships with the private sector and public sector bodies.

At the same time, local and historical differences are in danger of frustrating sub-regional transformation and change. Some already want to go further than has been proposed by the government and this may be appropriate, but I suspect that you will want to see early action on the ground before you start considering the inevitable requests for more devolution. It will be interesting to see which authorities use 2016 to grab the attention of local people and start delivering the changes to drive economic growth and prosperity for their area. These differences could be used to drive a competitive edge. It’s also clear the private sector has much to offer. We must ensure that private sector organisations respond positively to opportunities to influence local strategies, while designing and implementing new ways to deliver infrastructure and development on the ground. We must make these deals a force for positive and irreversible change.

We must ensure we address any confusion or delays within the private sector and housing associations, as we need to get them to raise their ambitions and increase the rate of housing development

And this leads to my second areas of focus - how authorities can best monetise their assets. We have already seen some imaginative partnerships between the private sector and local authorities. But there is a great deal more that remains to be done, particularly as this is about so much more than simply selling vacant sites and buildings. It needs to be seen as an opportunity to maximise the value of public sector assets through programmes of rationalisation, intensification and enhanced development. Services can be co-located, the efficient and smart use of retained buildings can become the norm. We all need to view land and buildings in terms of the value, in the widest sense, they potentially offer in the future.

Thirdly, 2016 will be the year of some big commissions. Three come to mind, with HS2 moving into its next phase, the refurbishment of the Houses of Parliament and the new prisons programme. We need get these right and form the right public private partnerships to design and deliver the infrastructure of tomorrow.

The last of these, the redevelopment of Britain’s prisons, is particularly exciting. Our Victorian jails are no longer fit for purpose and are too expensive to run. They also sit on highly valuable real estate - development of these sites has the potential to unlock acres of land for thousands of homes in prime locations while stimulating a new wave of prisons more suited to their task. Prison reform is really a win for everyone. We must move quickly to make this work.

And this leads me nicely into housing. Minister, where do I begin?

Now is the time for the market and providers to deliver, it really is as simple as that. A raft of changes are coming our way next year which have the potential to make a solid foundation to ensure the delivery of more homes - which is, as ever, the absolute priority. The Housing and Planning Bill will herald wide-ranging changes, not least “planning permission in principle”, which is intended to make development more certain and more efficient. The drive for new Starter Homes and more shared ownership is intended to encourage a step change in the supply of new homes for first time buyers.

But we need to be careful and make sure that we get the detailed design right. It can be too easy for changes to cause perverse results with confusion and misunderstanding leading to delays and difficulties with securing the necessary approvals. We know planning authorities are already stretched, with many describing themselves as under-resourced. Introducing changes can cause further delay. Maybe this is the right time to lift planning fees to improve income, to promote the planning system and to encourage more innovation and efficiency. Equally, we must ensure we address any confusion or delays within the private sector and housing associations, as we need to get them to raise their ambitions and increase the rate of housing development.

Throughout this letter I’ve tried to give the impression that now is the time to get this right for the future - it’s a recurring theme. 2016 could prove to be a pivotal year for all of the projects outlined above.
The pressure is going to be on all of us to deliver.

Richard McCarthy is executive director for central government at Capita