DCLG permanent secretary Melanie Dawes has been given a rough ride by MPs on the new-look public accounts committee over the way her department has handled a programme to free up public land for house-building.
Under plans set out in 2011, government departments with “significant” holdings of previously-developed land have been pressed to release it for house-building, with ministers claiming the measures would allow firms to "build as many as 100,000 new, much-needed homes and support as many as 25,000 jobs by 2015".
But a report by the National Audit Office spending watchdog, published last month, found that DCLG did not "routinely monitor" what happened to that land after it had been disposed of, meaning there was "no information" on the actual number of homes that had been built on sold land.
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The NAO also said it had been unable to find any "supporting documentation or economic evidence" to justify the 100,000 target, while some departments told the watchdog they did not feel they had been "consulted adequately" when "over-ambitious" targets for disposing of their own landholdings had been increased.
Dawes – who only took over as DCLG perm sec from Sir Bob Kerslake in March – faced tough questioning from MPs on the public accounts committee (PAC) over the scheme on Wednesday, in the second PAC session under new chair Meg Hillier.
'Exceeded the number'
The DCLG perm sec defended what she said had been "a very successful programme", which had, by March this year, already disposed of enough land for an estimated 109,590 homes to be built on.
"We set out to achieve land disposals on a scale that hadn’t been achieved before," she told the committee. "At the point of every disposal we had a very rigorous process to see what kind of quantum of housing was likely to be released – and looking at all that data we actually exceeded the number."
Dawes stressed that the aim of the programme had been to focus specifically on encouraging disposals of government land, and not to oversee actual housing starts on those sites.
"Our accountability was for the overall target of releasing land towards 100,000 homes," she said. "That was our accountability as a department. And what we had to do was to work with departments, and with all the various ministers and officials involved, to agree with departments what their contribution to that target would be.
"And it was up to those departments to make those sales and ensure, as they did so, that each one was done on a value for money basis… What we were measuring was, at the point of sale – and we had a number of assurances that we put each sale through – whether or not we thought there was a a strong chance that homes would be built on that land."
However, Dawes' responses provoked consternation among some members of the committee, with Conservative Richard Bacon repeatedly interrupting the DCLG perm sec as she sought to clarify the criteria for the scheme's success.
"With respect, I’m not asking you on what basis you think you should be judged," Bacon said. "I’m not asking you that. We’ll decide on what basis we think you should be judged on your use of assets that belong to the public.
"I’m asking you whether building housing – that’s actual houses – was a criterion for the value for money of this programme or not. It’s a very simple question. Either it was a criterion for the successful delivery of value for money or it wasn’t."
Chair Meg Hillier – a Labour MP – also voiced her own criticism, accusing the department of using "sophistry" and "obfuscating".
"Your literal, narrow target as a department may have been the land release but your real outcome for your paymasters – the ministers, for all of us here, for our constituents – was the actual homes that people live in. Surely you can simply acknowledge that that was an important criteria for the value for money of this taxpayer’s asset?”
Conservative Stewart Jackson – referencing the obstructionist civil servant in 1980s sitcom 'Yes, Minister' – accused Dawes of being "a bit Sir Humphrey" in her evidence.
"What you’re saying is ‘I’ve hit my target of targets’ – that’s what you’ve done," he said. "And it’s a bit Sir Humphrey if I’m honest this afternoon, very eloquently put and you answer very clearly, but the point is building homes for people, not having wonderful targets and bar charts. I think that’s our frustration."
But the DCLG perm sec insisted that the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) had used a "pretty rigorous process" to check that the land sales earmarked by departments in meeting the target could realistically be used for housing development.
She told the committee: "I can be clear that no figure was included in our final outcome numbers unless the HCA had signed it off.
"So there was no sense in which another department was able to say ‘Well, we think the correct figure is 2,500 homes’. If the HCA said 'nope, you haven’t got enough assurance, the planning permission isn’t certain enough, we don’t think the developer’s really going to do this', you can’t count those numbers’."
DCLG has said it will "consider and learn any lessons" from the NAO's report as it seeks to dispose of more public land "with capacity for up to 150,000 homes" by the end of the decade.
Department for Education permanent secretary Chris Wormald will be the next senior Whitehall official to face PAC next week, when the committee meets in public for its third session of the new parliament. The commitee kicked off the parliamentary session on Monday, taking evidence from Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill.
Update 15/7: This story was tweaked on July 15 after a sharp-eyed reader pointed out this was the second, and not first PAC session of the parliament. Apologies for the error - Matt