Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities permanent secretary Jeremy Pocklington has told MPs the ministry is making progress with recruiting and retaining staff with the skills it needs – but admits digital expertise remains “a huge challenge”.
Pocklington’s observations came in a select committee session in parliament where MPs quizzed the perm sec on DLUHC’s work with councils in financial crisis, post-Grenfell building-safety, the levelling-up agenda, and housing-delivery targets.
Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee chair Clive Betts asked the perm sec about DLUHC’s capacity to step up, particularly if problems in local authorities become more acute.
“In my first year as permanent secretary in 2020 I reviewed capabilities in the department and established a capabilities strategy, and continue to ensure that’s up to date and we’re delivering against it,” Pocklington said.
“What that identified was the importance, given the changing role of the department, that we increased our skills. Digital, data and project-delivery were probably the key areas that we identified.
“And we’ve continued to recruit and invest in those areas, so we do have the skills that we need. But, like others, we’re operating in a very tight labour market. Getting digital skills is a huge challenge – for example – for my department, as it is for every organisation in the country.”
Pocklington said DLUHC had continued to build up its sector expertise in areas like building-safety and local government.
“I don’t think you’d ever say that work is ever done, given natural turnover as we have in all government departments,” he said.
“But I think we have made progress, over recent years, to ensure that we do have a better sectoral understanding as well as some of the capabilities that are required.”
Pocklington said a digital-skills pay framework agreed with HM Treasury had helped the department to pay more competitive salaries to attract properly-qualified staff.
“The jargon is a DDaT pay framework, which the Treasury approved,” he said. “That’s what we’re using. Some – I don’t think all – other departments have introduced something similar. So that they can pay something closer to market rates for digital skills.”
Pocklington added that DLUHC had successfully recruited some staff with high-demand skills from outside of the capital, suggesting a more regional approach to hiring could be a solution.
Inflation means some levelling-up projects need to change
Pocklington was also questioned at yesterday’s session about the impact rising prices will have on levelling-up projects being funded by DLUHC.
He stopped short of conceding that some schemes bankrolled through initiatives such as the Levelling Up Fund would be cancelled, but he acknowledged that changes would need to happen to make some projects viable.
“Inflation is obviously something that we are looking at closely and working with delivery partners on,” he said.
“We’re engaging particularly with local authorities on the delivery of our funds. We’re introducing flexibilities within the funding that we have allocated to allow delivery partners to rescope projects to bring in other sources of funding, where appropriate, so they can be delivered and we can keep – as far as possible – the original purpose.”
Pocklington acknowledged that it would not always be possible to rescope projects, but stressed it was the “sort of thing we want to see”.
The perm sec said an exception was being made for projects supported by the Community Ownership Fund, where DLUHC is providing additional funding because of an expectation that community groups will struggle to find new resources or rescope their schemes.
“In a fiscally unconstrained world, you might compensate for all costs,” he said. “But, unfortunately, we obviously have to live within our means and we’re looking as far as possible to rescope projects or to find other sources of funding or other creative solutions. It is challenging.”