Boost construction, don't cut it

on 11 October, 2011

What would you say was the best way of stimulating economic growth following the worst recession in living memory? Print more money? Cut public spending and put people out of work? Or invest whatever you can afford to get the country’s biggest industry back on its feet? 

Over the past four years, the British construction industry has suffered a massive downturn. Housebuilding in particular has been strangled of investment – and we have an acute housing shortage.

In developing countries, investment in construction is seen as a route to prosperity. You build infrastructure, create jobs, attract investment and improve living standards. Why not try that here?

Four years ago, the UK’s car industry – or what remained of it after decades of decline – received a financial boost from the Government worth hundreds of millions in the form of the car scrappage scheme.

Why? The motor industry employs nothing like the number of people who work in construction. Moreover, the money ploughed into the scrappage scheme did very little to stimulate growth.

It seems odd to me that nobody thought of a scheme to boost the housing sector. Not only would this reduce job losses in the industry itself, but it would benefit the entire supply chain.

If the government were to stimulate the social housing sector, we’d be able to build the homes people need. And people in new homes spend money on furnishings, décor, gardens, kitchens and bathrooms.

After World War II, when the country was on its knees, the speed with which we rebuilt was phenomenal. Why can’t we do that now? What’s stopping our political masters from simply making the decision to build more?

One final question: how many people reading this know the name of the housing minister? It’s not a high profile job and many previous incumbents have seen it merely as a stepping stone to higher office. Housing never seems to be a high priority.

Grant Shapps (in case you were still wondering) has promised to “get Britain building again” – which is great. But his chosen method is to relax the planning laws to free up more land for development – an odd decision when housebuilders are already sitting on huge land-banks with planning permission.

The problem isn’t the lack of land, but the lack of affordable homes. The Government can’t wave a magic wand, but it could offer a helping hand.

Craig Begg is area sales manager at Norbord.

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