SEEDA, which is responsible for looking after the South-east's economic well-being, is focusing on houses for the simple reason that the region is about to run out of them. The argument is straightforward: the UK as a whole needs 3.8 million new homes in the 25 years from 1996 to 2021, about 850,000 of which will have to be built in the South-east. The South-east has two years to find a way around this "brick wall" before further economic growth is strangled by the tightening labour market.
Dunnett's solution is to make the most of the space available – he wants 60% of new housing to be built on brownfield land, and he has proposed the creation of a land assembly trust (a joint venture between SEEDA and South-east local authorities) to improve the availability of that land.
Then there are all the tight infill sites that call for a high level of design and planning expertise. A centre of excellence in construction and development, run by planning guru Sir Peter Hall, will be set up by SEEDA and the London Development Agency. This will provide multidisciplinary training intended to equip housebuilders with the skills to produce variations on the blueprint for high-density, mixed-use brownfield development.
"We have to upgrade the skills of the whole range of people involved in the market," says Dunnett. "It is to do with design, masterplanning, quality of materials used, incorporation of technology, enhancing the product and getting the punter demanding a better product. It's not for the faint-hearted." Changing the quality and location of new homes built in the South-east is one of three key priorities on Dunnett's agenda for promoting sustainable development in the region. The others, he says, are "easing pressures on transportation and infrastructure" and "addressing a skills deficit in the development industry".
Right now, Dunnett is in a buoyant mood because his agenda has been given a boost by recent government measures. The March budget unveiled £1bn of tax breaks for brownfield development; then in April the green light was given to a raft of transport projects, including the £3.3bn second phase of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, from Ebbsfleet in east Kent to Stratford in east London.
There was also the planning guidance for the South-east, issued in March, that came out in favour of the small, dense, high-quality developments that he has championed.
We have to upgrade the skill of all the people in the market. It’s not for the faint-hearted
Dunnett sees his challenge at SEEDA as "bringing together different silos of government funding, programmes and policies into a cohesive regeneration agenda". This is no mean feat, as it involves mediating between county and borough councils across the region, many of which have competing and conflicting interests.
"People tend to mop up the South-east in a sweeping statement. 'It has too many houses, ship them up north,' they say. But that's a nonsense. There may be pockets of deprivation in a sea of affluence in the West End of London, but on the south coast there are pockets of affluence in a sea of deprivation. The needs of east Kent are totally different from the needs of central Kent. You need different solutions." A business studies and economics graduate, Dunnett worked in international banking for 20 years, developing expertise in property in the late 1980s when he set up a specialist property and construction division within Midland Bank.
However, he is best known to the construction industry as the former chief executive of English Partnerships, where he took on some tough assignments, such as preparing for the agency's merger with the Commission for New Towns and – less successfully – the launch of the ill-starred Millennium Villages initiative.
This prescriptive development model was, he now acknowledges, ill-conceived and rushed. "You can get so focused on initiatives that you end up with solutions that have more to do with the initiative than the problem," he says.
Determined to learn his lesson from Millennium Villages, at SEEDA Dunnett intends to promote more holistic, bottom-up solutions to the South-east's development problems, through lobbying for fiscal, planning and transport incentives and by promoting development best practice over the long term.
Personal effectsWhat is your favourite town in the South-east?
Wadhurst, a town of about 4000 people and 20 shops on the East Sussex/Kent border. It is still a village at heart, despite the influx of commuters, because it has an active high street. What kind of house do you live in?
In a converted coach-house and stable block in Wadhurst. I live with my wife Ruth, a teacher on the General Synod. What do you do in your leisure time?
I am a churchwarden locally and a committed Christian. What book are you reading?
The Bible: Ephesians.