Can we fix it? Yes, we can – with foreign labour and a better attitude


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The Independent Online

Outlook Remember all those gaudy promises in the run-up to the election about the number of houses each party planned to build? They’re going to be broken because Bob the Builder’s mates all went to university and there’s a severe shortage of people to do the work.

Let me explain. House builder Crest Nicholson, which has just issued a trading statement, is in the midst of a purple patch. The December stamp duty cut, the Government’s “Help to Buy” scheme, economic growth and, especially, the fact that wages have are now finally rising in real terms, have helped to fuel a 25 per cent rise in sales. The problem the builder now has is in satisfying demand.

This is not due a lack of will, or a lack of materials. It’s not even because of Britain’s sclerotic planning process (although that isn’t helping).

It’s because while Bob might be building, few of his school mates went into the industry. The company has been able to draft in Borys and Boleslawa from Poland and Bernat and Berta from Hungary. But Bob still has more work than he knows what to do with.

Crest Nicholson has been trying to find ways around the problem by, for example, using pre-manufactured parts that can be assembled, Ikea-style, on site. But while that may help, it won’t fix the problem.

There is still a chronic shortage of qualified labour in the host of trades and professions that are needed to turn a plot of land into a shiny new home.

During an analyst briefing management talked, for example, of the business putting in orders for 10 bricklayers, only to have six turn up. Chief executive Stephen Stone later told me of college classes of 30 surveyors when he was starting out, where now there are five or six.

The revival of apprenticeships should help somewhat, but there remains an issue that I’ve highlighted before: the widespread snobbery over vocational training means that while research shows that most parents support apprenticeships, they don’t want their little darlings doing them.

There is a desperate need for reform, both of the educational system and of public attitudes.

In the meantime, we’d better hope Borys the Builder and his friends keep on coming over and that the plans of some on the antediluvian right to pull the drawbridge up at the white cliffs of Dover don’t come to fruition. It won’t be just house builders like Crest Nicholson that suffer if they get their wish. We all will.