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What construction SMEs need from the Brexit election

Judging by the reaction of some MPs, even those in government were a little taken aback by the announcement that Theresa May was to call a snap election.

Certainly, the industry has been left with little time to communicate its recommendations and priorities for the next government. Despite – or perhaps because of – the scale of challenges our sector faces, it hasn’t taken too long for the FMB to issue a five-point plan that outlines the key issues for construction SMEs in the coming years.

Even if Mrs May envisages the election as a vote on Brexit, the stakes are too high to allow polling day to ride on any single issue. Unsurprisingly, given the depth of the industry’s talent deficit and the likelihood of a fundamental reformulation of how immigration policy will look post-Brexit, the skills question features prominently in our policy recommendations.

Whatever form the next government’s immigration policy takes, it must allow for skilled tradespeople to continue to come into the country with relative ease.

Dead on arrival?

The Conservatives have been at pains to stress that key industries will be able to recruit the talent they need and communities secretary Sajid Javid has made encouraging comments about ensuring the housebuilding sector has the skills necessary to continue expanding its output.

In the longer term though, the real solution is to improve the number of people embarking upon high-quality construction apprenticeships.

“FMB members are absolutely clear that they want to see standards maintained and increased wherever possible”

Labour’s draft manifesto is promising to this end, including a commitment to doubling “the number of completed apprenticeships at NVQ Level 3 by 2022”.

Progress has been made by the last two governments on driving apprenticeship numbers up, but amid the pressure for further increases, the next government must ensure an unrelenting focus on quality. FMB members are absolutely clear that they want to see standards maintained and increased wherever possible.

Without the necessary skilled workers, then the critical big-picture policies that both the Conservatives and Labour have been right to focus on will be dead on arrival.

Retrofit focus

Both will promise big on housing, but they cannot escape the fundamental threat that a lack of skilled workers poses to the delivery of necessary homes and infrastructure.

Moreover, the important role that smaller independent contractors and housebuilders will play in the delivery of housing, and in the training of a new generation of workers, needs to be recognised and factored in to broader strategic decision-making.

Added to this, the state of our existing homes should not be overlooked, as it too often is. There are many reasons why we should care more about our existing buildings, but the need to improve their efficiency is certainly high on the list.

Construction SMEs not that long ago were told to gear up for what would become a mass market in green retrofit, but Conservative ministers in recent governments have gone increasingly cold on the subject.

However, both Labour and Plaid Cymru have made welcome interventions on the importance of retrofitting, suggesting that it is not an issue which has entirely disappeared off the agenda yet.

Finally, we wait to see what opportunities Brexit presents when it comes to cutting red tape.

This is one area where our members have very strong feelings and builders will want to hear from all parties how the departure from Brussels-set rules could benefit their businesses in the near future.

Brian Berry is chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders

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