Genteel Berks can't get the staff

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The Independent Online
WHEN TONY BLAIR declared: "We are all middle-class now," he must have had Berkshire in mind. The quintessential Home Counties county has become so dominated by professionals that blue-collar trades are literally dying out.

Indeed, in rural parts of the county the dearth of tradesmen is so acute that many people are having to wait months for the simplest of household jobs to be done. Others have given up altogether on the idea of the conservatory or loft conversion.

Unemployment runs at just over 2 per cent in the Thames Valley, compared with 4.8 per cent nationally. Professional and managerial staff account for 43 per cent of the workforce. The shortage of tradesmen means those who do offer such services can pick and choose when, where, and for whom they work.

According to Judith Anthony of the Thames Valley Economic Partnership, the county has a chronic labour shortage. "Unemployment is so low that it can only reflect that," she said. "We also have data on the labour issue which shows that 51 per cent of companies have problems recruiting staff."

So severe has the problem become that Reading Borough Council has set up a registration scheme for builders to try to meet the demand.

Julian Elwood, a sales manager, who moved to Twyford, near Reading, a year ago, is unable to find anyone to service his boiler and has abandoned plans to install a second shower and convert the carport into a garage.

"I rang about eight plumbers, all of whom were no further than nine miles away. Only one agreed to come - the others said it was too far and it wasn't worth their while," he said.

"Then I tried to get hold of a carpenter for what I thought was quite a big job - replacing two windows, converting the carport to a garage and building a desk and some shelves in the loft. I rang 12 people from the Yellow Pages. Only three bothered to return my call. Of those, only one actually came out and said he would give me a quote but he never bothered either. He must have thought the job wasn't big enough.

"I come from Suffolk and people are much more willing to travel to a job. I just couldn't believe that they wouldn't even travel nine miles here.

"As for having the car valeted, I was told it would be at least six weeks before they would have time to fit me in."

John Lawrence, who lives on the Berkshire-Oxfordshire border, said the difficulties involved in finding a plumber for a simple job were rapidly acquiring legendary status.

"We started building a utility room about eight months ago and wanted a plumber to put in a sink. We rang about four and none of them bothered to turn up. Some of them didn't even return our calls - you have to leave a message because they're never in," he said. "When we finally got a builder, he said he knew a plumber who would come and even he didn't bother. One day the builder was walking up to the road to our house and the plumber just drove straight past him and disappeared into the sunset."

According to Rodney Daborn, a plumber based in Sunningdale, his increasingly specialised skills mean he can afford to be choosy about his work.

"There certainly is plenty of work about and I don't reckon to travel more than about 10 miles for a job. Any more than that and it's a waste of time," he said.

"But this area has changed a lot. People move here from other parts of the country and they want jobs in management. They don't come here to do plumbing and carpentry."

Lawrence Silverman, chairman of economic and external affairs at Reading Borough Council, said that the area had suffered from high unemployment in the late Eighties and Nineties, when the construction industry was in depression.

"Many people turned to other jobs because there was no work for them in the building trade, so now there is a real shortage of builders. Those who stayed with it find their skills are out of date and they need to retrain.

"We have drawn up a register of people who are interested in building as a trade or want to retrain and made an arrangement with companies that want to build here. We will help them find the staff if they train them."

"We are aware there's a shortage of plumbers and those sorts of jobs. You do have to phone around and pay quite a lot of money." But there is one area where there is no problem finding the staff. Mr Silverman said the popularity of home improvement programmes on the television had led to an increase in the number of people wanting to work as professional gardeners.

Can't get the sink unblocked? Never mind that, look at the roses.