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Beazer hopes to lure builders back to the UK

Superhod is back. The economic conditions which spawned Max Quarterman, the brickie who became a millionaire during the 1980s building boom, have returned and could lure thousands of exiled labourers immortalised in the hit series Auf Wiedersehen Pet to come home from Germany.

That, at least, is the hope of Beazer, Britain's third-biggest housebuilder. It warned yesterday that the strength of the housing market, especially in London, was leading to skill shortages that threatened to delay some building programmes. Wages are being driven up to levels not seen for a decade.

Brickies in London now command an hourly rate of pounds 8.50 compared with pounds 7 just six months ago, according to Grant Prior of Construction News. And on the delayed Jubilee Line extension, an electrician's hourly pay has shot up from pounds 7.50 to pounds 9.

Beazer's warning is underlined in a report out today by Cambridge Econometrics, the economic consultants. "Skill shortages and capacity constraints could soon begin to appear, including among materials producers, reflecting the restructuring of capacity and the loss of skilled workers during the recession," when hundreds of thousands of builders left the industry.

Cambridge Econometrics expects output to grow 4 per cent this year and 5 per cent in 1998. "The outlook for construction is better than any year since the late 1980s boom," the report says. Joiners, plumbers and electricians are in short supply but the problem is most acute with bricklayers. "They can take their pick at the moment," Mr Prior said.

Despite the recent strength of sterling against the mark, exiled brickies in Germany still earn about half as much again as their UK peers. And in a reversal of historical trends, British labourers are heading to Dublin to capitalise on the building boom in Europe's fastest-growing economy, dubbed the "Celtic Tiger".

To cope with the skills squeeze, Beazer is calling on the thousands of British builders who fled the recession to make their fortune from the German post-reunification boom.

"Come home," urged Dennis Webb, Beazer's chief executive. "We are just matching our requirements now but we are having to make our existing labour force work harder.

"Good-quality people have not been trained over the past few years and we just can't get enough units built quickly enough."

Mr Webb - a Geordie like the character played by Jimmy Nail in Auf Wiedersehen Pet - was speaking after Beazer posted a 29 per cent increase in pre-tax profits to pounds 23.8m in the six months to December 1996. Marley, the building materials group, also noted an improved trend in UK housebuilding as it reported full-year profits of pounds 85.0m (pounds 46.3m).