A flagship government project that aims to deliver 15,000 new homes and 30,000 new jobs in a new garden city has struggled to recruit a permanent chief executive because the arm’s length body overseeing the project could not pay a high enough salary, a review has found.
Ebbsfleet Development Corporation is a non-departmental public body answerable to the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government, and was set up to develop a huge site in north Kent with £310m in funding allocated by then-chancellor George Osborne in 2015.
So far it has delivered more than 700 new homes and a primary school, but according to a tailored review of its operations published this week, the development corporation faces significant challenges in delivering its brief and has seen its effectiveness undermined by MHCLG’s inability to recruit a permanent chief executive.
Robin Cooper, the development corporation’s last permanent chief executive, quit the role in 2015 after just five months in post. A subsequent interim appointment, Paul Spooner, served for 18 months and was replaced by current interim Ian Piper in the autumn. Transparency data published by the development corporation indicates Cooper – who was previously a local authority regeneration director – received a salary of up to £90,000 as part of a total reward package worth up to £124,000.
The review supported the development corporation’s continued role as the delivery body for the project for at last another five years. But it warned that bringing forward an “acceptable and implementable scheme” for its central area – which includes Ebbsfleet International Train Station – faced “highly complex” land ownership issues that posed “a very high risk” to achieving the garden city vision.
Produced by a panel that includes Department for International Trade director Helen Carrier and One Public Estate programme director Brian Reynolds, the tailored review, which forms part of the government's public bodies reform programme, said EDC needed to play a critical coordinating role, but did not appear to be properly funded.
“EDC appears to lack the revenue funding to undertake necessary feasibility studies which is limiting its potential to influence how several billions of pounds are invested,” the review said.
“For example, EDC needs to engage commercial advice on the changing nature of the central area and on the approach to the legacy work.
The lack of certainty about EDC’s future, the inability of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to recruit an experienced permanent chief executive on competitive terms, and unacceptable delays in confirming the appointment of a replacement board director, are all undermining EDC’s effectiveness and ability to fulfil its potential.
“These issues need to be addressed as a matter of urgency," the report stated.
It called on EDC chair Michael Cassidy, with MHCLG support, to recruit a full-time chief executive using “an appropriate professionally supported recruitment campaign and commercial remuneration package” as a priority.
The panel said it had been advised of “extreme examples of micro-management” that appeared to have sprung out of the EDC being allocated a low level of financial delegation, capped at £250,000.
It said that subject to the appointment of a suitable chief executive – who would also be the accounting officer – a delegation limit of £5m would be more appropriate.