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Federation of Master Builders

7 min read Partner content

Brandon Lewis MP, Emma Reynolds MP, and Stephen Williams MP debate on apprenticeships, ghost homes, and access to finance for SMEs.

Opening the Federation of Master Builders’ (FMB) parliamentary event, in association with the Building Magazine, Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis (Con) began by congratulating FMB on the launch of their programme for government: 2015 to 2020, in advance of the General Election.

He thought housing would be a hugely important challenge for the next government to address, and he confirmed small builders would be central to that plan. Lewis emphasised the importance of a skilled labour force, and the need to promote apprenticeships and vocational training at an earlier stage in the education process. He wanted to see more events along the lines of the Skills Summit, to encourage younger people to look at the construction industry as an attractive career path.

Most importantly, Lewis confirmed the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills was considering future funding mechanisms to encourage smaller businesses to take on more apprenticeships, with the incentive to help younger people train in the building industry. Alongside skills, he understood the top priority for FMB members was access to finance, and the ability to secure funding to compete with larger house builders.

He explained the Builders Finance Fund had helped to support some smaller builders, but he recognised there needed to be further reforms in this area. Speaking briefly about custom and self-build, he suggested smaller builders would be best-placed to build good quality homes designed for the local area. Concluding, he suggested house building would be at the heart of the long term economic plan.

Chairing the debate, Sarah Richardson, editor of Building Magazine welcomed the FMB’s programme for government, and explained that Building Magazine particularly agreed with the need for boosting apprenticeships and skills in the construction industry.

Richardson opened the floor to Brian Berry, chief executive of the FMB, who began by outlining the five key priority areas for the next government to address; Increasing opportunities for skilled employment; increasing the supply of new homes; maintaining, improving and cutting carbon emissions from existing homes; maximising local economic growth through public procurement; and allowing finance to flow.

Berry suggested it was an ambitious programme, but it would be vital for the next government to address these priority areas in 2015, if they were to succeed in tackling the housing challenges ahead. 

Emma Reynolds, shadow housing minister, agreed that small builders would be crucial to delivering the “step change” needed to increase housing delivery in the market. She understood the scale of the challenge ahead, and was dismayed to hear younger people in their twenties and thirties were still living with their parents and unable to move into their own homes.

Reynolds maintained there was no “silver bullet” to tackling the housing problems, and she thought the Labour Party’s Lyons Review of Housing demonstrated a comprehensive and strategic approach to the problems.

Turning to access to finance, she championed Labour’s Help to Build scheme, a finance initiative for small builders based upon Treasury guarantees to help SMEs enter the market. She noted the Builders Finance Fund had initially only been available for smaller builders developing 15 units or more, which she maintained wouldn’t be accessible for the majority of SMEs. She thought finance should start to be made available through the banks, rather than distributing pots of money.

Under a Labour Government, she said there would be fast track planning for smaller builders developing site of ten units or less, local authorities would be encouraged to incorporate smaller sites into their five year land supply and there would be a strict deadline for local plans. Briefly on skills, she recognised there was a greater need to encourage apprenticeships, and understand the construction industry’s needs. 

Minister for Communities and Local Government Stephen Williams (Lib Dem, Bristol West) opened by stating that housing would be a major issue during the General Election like never before.

There was general consensus that at least 200,000 home needed to be built, however the Liberal Democrats proposed building 300,000 homes a year over the course of the next decade, he said.

Williams commented that the changing lifestyles amongst younger generations had added to the pressures on UK housing supply, which he thought was overall a positive thing. However the loss of so many SMEs during the recession was one of a number of constraints holding the sector back.

He noted that the approach of SMEs in comparison to PLC’s was needed to ensure consumers were offered choice and quality.

Help to Buy had unlocked housing developments, he stated, however there remained a significant difficulty in accessing finance. He revealed the Liberal Democrats would be looking to propose a Housing Investment Bank to support SMEs and accessing finance in their manifesto.

The state had a role to play in addressing the market failure present in housing supply, Williams highlighted, the role the HCA was playing in commissioning new builds in Cambridgeshire.

Williams surmised by stating that homes in future needed to fulfil a measure of quantity, but also of quality.

Richard Burr, FMB member and star of the Great British Bake Off, asked if the next government should introduce a licencing system to address the bad reputation SME builders have.

The panel noted his suggestion was an interesting one, Emma Reynolds was concerned that at a time when government should be attracting SME builders into the industry that additional regulations could deter this. Williams felt that a tightening of standards could prove a more viable route.

Catherine West, Labour PPC for Hornsey and Wood Green, raised the issue of careers advice to young people.

Reynolds noted that careers advice for teenagers was important to fill the 200,000 jobs predicted to be needed by 2020. Careers advice was nowhere near what it should be to achieve this and there was a need to promote the value of technical qualifications as is done in Europe.

Williams recalled meeting young apprentices and noted the importance of fostering a perception of inclusivity to attract more women. He commented that the state should not be the default and on the huge opportunities to improvement engagement between professionals in the sector and education institutions.

Both noted the difficulties around careers advisers perhaps not understanding the opportunities on offer in the construction industry. Berry highlighted that a recent CITB survey of careers advisers found 35 per cent would not consider the construction industry in their advice.

Julian Weightman, director of The Border Craft Group Ltd, asked why the government was ignoring the advice of the SME construction sector in relation to the Richard Review reforms, and not providing the necessary funding framework for small firms to take on apprentices. In response, Williams said the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills was looking into the Richard Review, and he would follow up with them.

When asked whether the Government should take a greater role in encouraging apprenticeships, Reynolds said “we all have a role to play”, and she suggested it was for the employers to promote themselves in local schools and colleges.

Berry agreed, but he argued “the government sets the framework” and it was important that the overall funding mechanisms were right for SMEs to take on new trainees.

Sarah Burr, wife of FMB member and master baker Richard Burr, asked about the issue of empty homes.

Reynolds felt that the Government had not gone far enough in their measures to address and placed an unnecessary burden on local authorities. Labour would shorten time period whereby councils can take action and give powers to double Council Tax on empty properties. She also highlighted empty homes can go both ways, where properties lie empty for antisocial reasons it was important to stimulate regeneration.

Williams outlined that the Government had made funding available to local authorities to deal with Empty Homes but councils had found it difficult to take forward. He noted the issue of Ghost Homes in London and second homes in rural areas which he said the Liberal Democrats wanted to do more on.

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