Brian Berry of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) highlights the lack of focus on housing during the recent election campaigns, and explores what the new Government can do to aid the sector going forward.
After 25 days of door knocking, battle buses, leadership debates, pledges, blunders, photo opportunities and press conferences, the first winter general election campaign since 1923 has come to an end. Amongst all this noise, there was one policy area that was notably lacking in prominence – housing. While there were a few announcements made by each of the parties, construction certainly was not a major theme of this election.
Why this was the case is up for debate, but in some ways, it is irrelevant now. All eyes are now on what the new Government will do next, and they cannot turn a blind eye to the housing crisis. There is an opportunity for this Government to introduce new, bold and imaginative policies to ensure we are building the homes we urgently need. The FMB published a ‘Programme for Government’, on some of the ideas we think should be taken forward.
Here is snapshot of some of the ideas within the document:
COMMIT TO BUILDING 1.5M NEW HOMES OVER THE NEXT FIVE YEARS
The new Government needs to commit to housebuilding as a national infrastructure priority. Last year saw 241,130 new homes in England, but this is still almost 60,000 short of the 300,000 target. We want to see a commitment from this Government to maintain this target for each of the years it is in power over the next Parliament, and therefore enable the building of 1.5 million homes of all tenures.
This may seem ambitious, but it will only be by aiming high that we will come close to solving the housing crisis.
ALLOCATE SMALL PLOTS OF PUBLIC LAND TO HELP SME HOUSEBUILDERS
Central to delivering these numbers of new homes will be reversing the decline in the small to medium-sized (SME) housebuilding sector. We can’t rely on the major housebuilders to do this alone.
In the 1980s, small housebuilders brought forward four in 10 new homes, whereas today that figure stands at just over one in 10. The biggest barrier facing SME housebuilders is available and viable land. There has been progress in this area, with changes to small site allocation in the National Planning Policy Framework, and indeed we have seen this barrier fall slightly in our annual housebuilder’s survey, but there is still much more than can be done.
Government can take a lead by releasing public land, broken up into small plots, for housebuilding. The Government should heed the warnings of the Public Accounts Committee, that it has “failed to use its position as a major land owner,” and risks therefore failing to reach its target of selling enough land for 160,000 homes until after 2025. This is not good enough and should be looked at urgently by the new Government.
HELP SECURE THE FUTURE SKILLS BASE
One of the uncertainties that the business community will look to the new Government to resolve, is what the UK’s future immigration system will look like.
With one in 10 construction workers hailing from the EU, the industry must not face a ‘cliff edge’ when it comes to skilled labour if we are to deliver the new homes our country needs.
The UK needs a fair and balanced immigration system that responds to the needs of business as opposed to being based on arbitrary skill or salary thresholds.
The industry also needs to reflect and consider how to encourage the next generation to choose a career in our sector over others. The FMB will continue to promote vocational education, and lobby for investment in Further Education colleges as part of this agenda.
I have been clear in my concerns about the UK Apprenticeship Levy since day one, and the policy in England needs greater reform. We must reverse the decline in apprenticeships in construction, planning and the built environment, or else it is hard to see how we are going to find enough people to build the homes we need.
WORKING TOGETHER TO DELIVER A POSITIVE HOUSING LEGACY
This Government has an opportunity to leave a long-lasting legacy by helping to solve the housing crisis. However, this will not happen without housing being a political priority, and the setting of ambitious targets and radical policy changes. SMEs have a major part in achieving this, and Government must work with our sector to find positive solutions to breaking down barriers, and increasing capacity.