Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis said the UK had “probably one of the most complicated housing sectors in the world”, partly due to the high levels of home ownership aspiration.
Mr Lewis recognised there were various barriers to entry for housing developers, not least of which was the need for a faster system of building, something the Government’s productivity plan aimed to put in place.
However, the Housing Minister argued that “without a doubt” the skills gap was the number one barrier faced by the house building industry was the skills gap, saying:
“If I had all the land in the world and all the money necessary to build all the homes we need, we do not have the people to build them.”
“We need more people in construction.”
“The skills shortage is just getting worse” agreed Brian Berry, CEO of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), arguing that an increase in the number of construction apprenticeships and diversification in the workforce would work to alleviate this skills gap.
Director of Corporate Affairs for the National House Building Council (NHBC), Lewis Sidnick said the skills gap was accompanied by two other major challenges: the high demand for housing and the desirability of homes.
He called for the new-build industry to be promoted by all those across the sector as well as by the Government.
“We are going in the right direction, we are building new homes, but clearly more has to be done,” said Mr Sidnick.
For Mr Berry, addressing issues around access to finance for developers and the availability of small sites to build on were key.
“We need to see more local house builders all across the country building on local sites” he said, rather than only building new housing on large plots of land on the edges of town.
“I do trust people” in making local planning decisions, said Lewis, agreeing that local people did tend to make sensible decisions when fully considering the need for more homes in their local areas.
The larger sites could be hugely important, the MP for Great Yarmouth stressed, but developments could take far longer than if several developers were working on the same project simultaneously.
Councillor Donna Jones, leader of Portsmouth City Council, acknowledged that localism and nimbyism was a threat to house building in the UK, calling for local communities take more responsibility in this regard.
Selling the idea of increased house building to their local communities was particularly key, she stressed.
Mr Berry explained how having more local, smaller sites, employing local people and building small housing plots tended to be more attractive to local communities, as their value was clear and the fear of the local community being dramatically changed by a large scale development was lessened.
Planning permissions were also particularly prohibiting for developers, said the Housing Minister, explaining that he would prefer for developers to be able to obtain permission to build within a few months, rather than the current situation which often takes few years.
He added that issues around access to finance for developers, as highlighted by Berry, would become less of an issue if the planning permission system was not as lengthy and problematic of a process, as banks would be more comfortable lending to developers if not being asked to take a risk on whether the project would be denied planning permission.
Councillor Jones said family homes were “desperately” needed in areas like Portsmouth. A shared approach, focused on “smarter spending” would be crucial in tackling the challenges to creating more sustainable housing developments, she believed, to combat what she saw as a slightly fragmented approach to the funding of developments.
“We need to make sure we are speeding up the unlocking of the huge amounts of publically owned land” she said, and called for a strong relationship between local and central government to increase flexibility across the system, something Mr Sidnick agreed would be warmly welcomed.
Mr Lewis confirmed that the announced fast-tracking for development on brownfield sites would be written into the Government’s Housing Bill, which would be introduced “very shortly”.
The minster added that the use of advanced building techniques, rather than using the same methods of building homes that were used decades ago, could “dramatically change how many houses we can build in a year”, as well as offering opportunities for the market through the use of sustainable materials.
Berry called for the Government to pick up where it had left off with the Green Deal, saying the scheme had not been flawless but there was room for it to be improved.