Playing our part in levelling up

Brian Berry, CEO of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), discusses why SME housebuilders should be utilised in achieving the Government’s agenda to ‘level up.’ 

The industry closed out last year on a relative high with workloads doing well, despite tough trading conditions caused by the pandemic, materials shortages, and the ever lingering issue of skills shortages. This year presents many opportunities for the Government to enhance the market for small builders, with levelling up high on the agenda and the much-anticipated Planning Bill around the corner. But, there are significant changes coming to those that build new homes. Indeed, I’ve had some members call them the most significant they’ve ever seen. 

The incoming changes in the form of EV charging points, new building regulations and biodiversity net gain requirements are here to limit the impact new homes have on the environment. They affect both big and small builders alike, but I’m quite conscious that significant alterations like these can be difficult for SME housebuilders to incorporate, as resource and time are precious commodities. The FMB will be working with the Government, our members and the wider industry to ensure these changes don’t exacerbate further the already declining SME housebuilding market. Especially with levelling up as a Government priority, who is better placed to deliver such a change than small, local housebuilders who are at the heart of their communities? 

Government targets

Housebuilding and levelling up naturally go hand in hand, and it’s positive for the industry that these key tenets of Government policy fall under the same departmental remit. However, micro home builders, who are part of their communities, have been on the decline for some decades. Planning problems, accessing finance and availability of land have slowly, but surely forced more and more of them out of the market. 

Levelling up is the perfect opportunity to address this imbalance. SME housebuilders deliver quality properties that reflect their communities and use up underutilised land that larger developers wouldn’t touch. They also train up the vast majority of apprentices, taking local talent and forging them into the next generation of tradespeople. 

Tackling these barriers for SME builders head on would not only deliver success for the levelling up agenda, but would tackle the Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities’ other great ambition of hitting their housing targets. Without SME’s delivering quality homes, the 300,000 a year target for new homes will be difficult to achieve – let’s hope the Levelling Up White Paper sheds some light on this sector. 

Planning needs an overhaul

This year we will see the release of the much-anticipated Planning Bill, the contents of which will hopefully rectify this long-standing issue for SME housebuilders, with 62% of FMB members reporting planning as a major barrier to housebuilding. 

What’s needed is greater investment in local authority planning teams, granting them the ability to tackle the backlog of applications, and the scope to deal with smaller projects. It would also go some way to enable faster turnaround times of applications. Small builders are often faced with long wait times that delay sites and put a strain on finances and their limited staff numbers. Beyond just resourcing, planning teams need to communicate more effectively, bringing transparency and clarity to the process which so often frustrates small builders, already suffering from long delays without knowing why. Digitisation would go a long way to alleviate this issue, much of the mechanics of planning is now done through digital methods, so let’s get the process online in the form of a tracker, much like you would see with parcel deliveries. This would create a simpler, more transparent system for all involved, but it would still need detailed communication to accompany it – digitisation doesn’t have to mean the loss of human interaction. 

A year of great potential

This year, the third in which the pandemic still lingers, will be a bumpy one. Inflation is wreaking havoc with material prices and people’s purse strings, skills shortages still plague the industry and SME housebuilders will be under increasing pressure from significant changes to planning requirements. But the Government’s agenda should be leaning in our favour. 

If there is a genuine want to boost the local economies of our communities and unlock new opportunities as part of ‘building back better,’ look no further than your local housebuilder. They enable people in local communities to train locally, work locally and ultimately stay local, which uplifts every part of the nation in equal measure, and this to me is what levelling up truly looks like. Government has a rare opportunity this year to make it a reality and the industry is waiting with bated breath, so let’s see if they do deliver.