Will the Queen’s Speech help us to build back better?

The legislative programme outlined in the Queen’s Speech yesterday is a further step towards recovery from the pandemic. During the last 12 months the government has seen the construction industry as an integral part of its recovery strategy under the ‘Build Back Better’ banner. Adrian JG Marsh considers some of yesterday’s announcements.

What’s clear is the government remains committed to boosting housebuilding and making home ownership a reality for new generations. It also intends to continue to invest in infrastructure as part of its ‘levelling-up’ agenda. These are essential if it wants to remain in power.

What’s concerning is the solutions appear to favour large corporates and don’t seem to encourage the SME supply chain. SME’s are the engine room for  specialist contractors and are a critical component of a vibrant supply chain.

For too long there have been headlines highlighting the skills shortages. If the supply chain is to play its part in recovery and growth it will have to commit to training and boosting skills among the existing work force as well as attract new entrants to fill the gaps left by an ageing workforce and EU worker vacating the UK for other markets.

What detail appears in the proposed Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, will be crucial to developing home grown talent. It is intended to deliver the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, which will be fundamental to bridging the skills gaps and giving us a workforce that can deliver projects to the right standard, safely and on time.

Skills shortages in construction have become a constant feature. There was a skills crisis when the CITB was created more than half a century ago and there is still a skills shortage. Reports regularly highlight shortages of all key trades such as  bricklayers, carpenters, dryliners, plasterers and scaffolders.

If we are to Build Back Better and tackle climate change issues, then bolstering the UK’s skills and training environment is fundamental to recovery and continuing growth. Improvements should strengthen the links between employers and colleges. Employers need to train more, but equally colleges must deliver skills that employers want.

In the construction sector, local SME contractors train 71% of all construction apprentices and must be at the heart of these plans. The major contractor model is geared towards managing trade contractors and not directly employing workers. It is therefore essential specialists redouble their efforts to ensure government understand who actually delivers construction jobs and services.

The existing housebuilding sector is expected to deliver 300,000 homes every year.  To achieve these targets the government has to diversify the housing market and reverse the decline of SME house builders, who built 40% of all new homes in the 1980s but only build 12% today.

The government’s commitment to changing the planning system through the Planning Bill and reduce bureaucracy is good news. While greater flexibility, simplicity, and responsiveness is needed to tackle the barriers that add time and cost, we must not compromise the quality of the homes that are built. So it is vital that high standards in design and build are not affected as a result, and that any overhaul doesn’t in fact add further delays.

With COP26 taking place in Glasgow later this year the Queen’s Speech also recommitted the government to delivering Zero Carbon. But the government should be looking beyond new build to achieve this objective. There are more than 20 million energy inefficient homes in the housing stock, so the government should back a long-term plan to retrofit these homes so they are fit for the twenty-first century and help to make Zero Carbon a reality as part of building back better.

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