A sense of urgency and a healthy dose of ambition is needed if there is any chance of unlocking the potential of public land across the UK and hitting the target of 1 million new homes by 2020

Richard McCarthy

Now that the EU referendum is behind us, we need to set to one side the political debate and uncertainty and recognise that whatever lies in the future for Britain’s public assets, we need to maximise their efficient use, identify what is and what will be surplus and get building - today.

When it comes to unlocking the potential of public land and assets, this is a moment for renewal, re-engagement and a refreshed effort to cut through the constraints, both real and perceived, that have been holding back our industry. It’s time to crack on.

This is a recurring theme for me in these pages, but now feels like an important moment for all those involved to come together, across the public and private sectors. We must get on with delivering the new developments to provide more jobs and more homes, while providing the necessary commercial and other public policy returns. We have had a moment of pause but we now need to get back to work – with a renewed vigour and determination.

Speaking at a summit on the future of Britain’s public land recently, I stressed again the sense of urgency, and the need for an Olympic mindset that is now essential to start getting the job done at pace and with maximum impact.

So what is the current state of affairs with our use of public land and buildings, and where does it need to be?

We first need to meet the strategic challenge. Then we need to have the vision to identify the development potential and see the way through the bureaucratic minefield that we have helped create. And then lastly, we need to get on with constructing the homes and facilities to meet our future needs. Ultimately, it’s all about the delivery.

While the strategic vision is coming together and is broadly there, it is still very much at a high level and not as universally held or understood as it needs to be. However, we really need to start stretching our imaginations when it comes to having the vision we need. Whether it’s the use of buildings, land, or even air, I think there is much more to be done to visualise and unlock the early and long-term development potential. Too often we accept the norm as the best we can achieve and quickly rule out more innovative and unusual approaches.

There is an urgent need to overcome the slow progress that still hinders too many projects

In London, for example, it’s heartening to see the new approach by Transport for London (TfL) and the recognition of development capability, including “air rights”, at bus and underground stations across London. With many Underground stations being above ground, particularly in the outer boroughs, we are now starting to recognise the development potential that we have all missed in the past.

Re-imagining these stations as key centres and development opportunities for the towns and villages that exist across London is just the type of creative thinking we all need to employ if we are to hit our housing targets. However, we are just at the start. We must stretch our minds and ambitions. Already there are encouraging signs that mayor Sadiq Khan and TfL are going to take the opportunity to be bolder and more pro-active in both exploring the potential and then driving future development opportunities.

We then come to the delivery challenge. First, and foremost, this is a challenge of leadership. Delivery needs to be owned and driven - it won’t just happen. Leaders need to be in command with the benefit of demanding timescales and operational freedoms and incentives to drive success. More broadly, everyone in the team needs to have a clarity of purpose, a recognised role, and accountability to the rest of the supply chain.

This collaborative approach, with aligned interests for all involved in a development project regardless of its size or complexity, must be met with an absolute focus on outcomes and an expectation of insight, ingenuity and innovation. Consequently, the necessary freedoms need to be accompanied by performance-driven recognition and rewards and an encouragement to devise working practices and processes, such as parallel rather than sequential working, that are designed to enable success.

This all means we need a return to the London 2012 Olympic mindset, supported by strong, focused teams with the capability, incentives and impatience to get things done on time.

There is an urgent need to overcome the slow progress that still hinders too many projects, which all too often is just accepted as standard by all those involved.

If there is to be any chance of meeting the ambitious target of 1 million new homes by 2020, public sector land and buildings will need to be part of the solution. This needs action now and not a rush to get projects through in 2019 when it will be too late to hit this delivery milestone. A clear political will and commitment from the public sector is needed in order to spark confidence in the market and encourage early delivery from the private sector.

Richard McCarthy is executive director for central government at Capita