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Construction industry 'immersed in arbitrary targets'

Chartered Institute of Building | Chartered Institute of Building

6 min read Partner content

Panellists discussed the future of the construction industry and promoting skills for young people, during a morning fringe held by the Charted Institute of Building. Andrew Stunell MP chaired the event, and spoke about the importance of energy efficiency standards and strategic planning.

Chairing the debate, Liberal Democrat MP for Hazel Grove Andrew Stunell said he had a long term interest in the construction industry, following his private members bill in 2004, and his work with the Green Deal to secure sustainable development.

He explained the Liberal Democrats had put forward a strong green agenda, but he conceded this had often been poorly focused. According to recent statistics, he suggested between 40 to 50 per cent of carbon emissions came from buildings, but suggested the government did almost nothing in policy terms to deal with the problem on the ground.

Working on the Green Deal, Stunell said he been disappointed with the outcome, although he was pleased energy performance requirements had been brought in as a result. He wanted to see zero carbon homes higher on the agenda, and a similar commitment for non-residential buildings.

Speaking about construction, he mentioned the significant contribution to the economy, as well as benefits to local infrastructure, employment and skills.

He restated the Liberal Democrats commitment to 300,000 additional homes each year, and noted this was almost triple the amount built in 2014. Stunell wanted to see a focus on quality of housing, especially with energy efficient measures, and suggested there were few incentives to achieve this currently.

Paul Nash, vice president of the Chartered Institute of Building(CIOB), began by saying approximately 2.9m people had been employed in the construction industry, contributing around 6.3 per cent of GDP, which equated to £100bn annually.

Explaining the role of CIOB, he said the organisation was the centre for a management career in the construction industry, with over 46,000 members around the world.

Nash wanted to see the position of “construction manager” becoming an internationally recognised discipline, on level with architecture and engineering.

He suggested there were two challenges which needed to be addressed; firstly, the issue of skills shortages and secondly, the image of the construction industry and attracting new young talent.

Finally Nash drew attention to the CIOB reports, on a guide to the built environment, and the real face of construction, as means to working with government and taking the industry forward.

Next to speak, Dr Stephen Gruneberg, a lecturer at the University of Westminster, stressed the need for government intervention, following a “market failure” with regards to housing and construction in the UK.

He suggested the construction industry contributed well over 6.3 per cent, taking into consideration the glass, steel and timber industries, the figure was more like 15 per cent of GDP.

Speaking about the housing, he said the markets were failing to deliver the housing needed for people in local areas, and the government’s belief in the regulating forces of the market would come at an expense.

He also highlighted the skills shortage in construction, with over 20 per cent of people looking to leave the industry or retire in the next five to ten years. Gruneberg suggested the Government needed to intervene and support higher wages and working conditions to raise the status of construction.

He spoke about the grant levy system, and called for the government to ringfence money specifically for traineeships and skills in construction.

Gruneberg highlighted the wider costs associated with a poorly built environment, such as health issues, anti-social behaviour and crime, increased carbon emissions, and barriers to social mobility, as well labour mobility.

Speaking about the Construction 2025 Strategy, he said it was good to have long-term thinking, but the construction industry had immersed itself in arbitrary targets without considering the overall goal.

His final point focused on professionalising the industry, and ensuring construction qualifications were competitive and gained a higher status in the UK.

Moving back to Paul Nash, he described his career in construction, beginning as a son of a toolmaker, joining a national contractor, studying at a technology college, and obtaining a degree in project management with the support of CIOB.

He gave this example, to demonstrate the opportunities available in the industry, and the need to raise standards of professionalisation to attract young people to the sector.

He spoke about the large numbers of NEET’s the UK, and the need to engage these young people in construction, as well as offer traineeships.

Question and answer session

A representative from North East Fife wanted to know why the UK wasn’t building more houses and what politicians could do to incentivise it.

Gruneberg suggested there was gap between the cost of building affordable houses, and the margin needed for builders to make a profit on construction. He suggested the government needed to intervene and offer an incentive for house builders to bring prices down, and offer smaller homes.

Stunell suggested the Liberal Democrats aim to build 300,000 houses wouldn’t be achievable solely in the private sector. Speaking about the Mayor’s recent housing plan, he said the Mayor didn’t want to build a million homes, he just wanted to talk about them.

He suggested the problem was not market failure, but planning failure, as often housing developments were resisted by local people and councils. He said it was hypocritical of the Liberal Democrat party to commit to protecting greenbelt land, and still suggest building 200,000 new homes would be feasible.

Stunell said he wouldn’t be the minister in the next government, but suggested the National Planning Policy Framework and Localism Act were having an adverse effect on planning decisions for housing developments.

Nash suggested the construction industry lost the skills and builders during the recession, and they couldn’t just “turn the tap back on”. He suggested there needed to be more confidence in the sector, and he felt strongly about government intervention and engaging with the industry on this.

Answering a question on construction skills, Stunell said there had been a huge uptake of apprenticeships but construction didn’t seem to be part of the gold rush. He questioned whether the industry was attractive enough for people to volunteer for, and suggested the reputation of the industry was more important than its image.

He suggested a person choosing between a place at Oxford University, or a construction company, would be unlikely to choose construction. However, he said the scene was changing and suggested the industry needed to be more competitive in its ideas and image.

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