Wickes report issues a challenge to government.

Industry leaders call for government to halt construction decline

Published:  28 November, 2012

UK: Wickes' report, the 'Voice of Britain's Building Trade', issued a three-fold challenge from industry leaders as the construction sector continues to contract with a 2.5% fall in Q3 2012.

In an independent report commissioned by Wickes, construction industry leaders called for the livelihoods of UK tradesman to be future-proofed in three ways: with the improvement of practical training for young people; by reducing VAT and through the use of the Green Deal to upskill the industry's tradesmen and upgrade 95% of UK housing stock.

The report calls for young people to be trained in core craft skills such as plastering and bricklaying, and proposes that learning should take place on construction sites from the age of 15, as is the case in Eastern Europe. Industry leaders called for VAT to be cut to 5% for the trade to ensure reputable tradesmen are not out-priced by cowboy builders offering cash-in-hand quotations to homeowners on a budget.

It also calls for the Government to look further afield than the individual homeowner in order to fulfil the potential of the Green Deal. Rather than focusing on the 5% of newbuilds, it argues, the initiative should focus on upgrading Britain's existing housing stock.

The 'Voice of Britain's Building Trade' report includes commentary by representatives from construction industry bodies such as the Guild of Builders and Contractors and the Sustainable Building Organisation, as well as skills organisations, UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

Mark Davies, Wickes' trade category director, said: "At Wickes, our number one priority is to helpfully serve sole and SME tradesmen so that they are affordably equipped to do their jobs. With our trade heritage, this gives us a platform to highlight the issues facing the sole tradesmen.

"It is that context which has led us to develop this report and commit to ongoing discussions with industry insiders. We must acknowledge the pressures and concerns of local tradesmen: and in doing so give them a voice and inspire change."

Among the extracts from the report are suggestions that the foundation of the construction industry is no longer secure due to a lack of practical training for young people and challenges to the traditional apprenticeship system.

Industry representatives also felt that red tape is restricting young people from gaining construction site experience at an early enough age, to the extent that a workforce from Eastern Europe is currently 'propping-up' the industry.

Delegates at gthe Wickes debate felt the focus of today's education system lends itself to desk-based careers rather than equipping young people to pick up tools on a construction site. There are fewer technical colleges offering practical building skills that could create a direct route to employment.

Ted Goddard, director of the Guild of Builders and Contractors said: "The majority of small and medium-sized builders are having difficulties in finding competent tradespeople... years ago we had really good training, core craft training. Colleges used to be called schools of building, arts and crafts... the current education system does not provide craft trade skills and this problem is not exclusively limited to the building industry, it is also applicable for engineering, ship-building and making motorcars."

Within the report, industry insiders were in agreement that added pricing pressures made homeowners more vulnerable to 'cowboy builders'.

Consumers are basing their trade hiring decisions not on qualifications (only 20% of homeowners questioned in Wickes research would ask about a tradesman's skills) but on price.

Round table delegates challenged the Government, stating that there is a simple solution: reduce the VAT rate to 5% for contractors.

Michael Holmes, editor in chief of Homebuilding & Renovating, Real Homes and Period Living magazines said: "It is very difficult for the consumer... perhaps they just assumed their builder was below the threshold for VAT when they paid cash in hand... it's a difficult thing to enforce.

"The contrary argument would be to have a reduced rate of VAT, as it works in France. If we encourage the Government to have a 5% VAT rate on all home improvement work then the registered contractors would feel the relief, and that for me is the key to regulating the industry."

The Government's Green Deal initiative was identified by industry delegates as a hidden opportunity to solve the industry's accreditation issues. Representatives agreed that since tradesmen needed to be trained to conduct Green Deal installation, this could benchmark a new standard of qualifications in the industry.

The training requirements of the Green Deal could also provide a means for apprentices with no construction site experience to be of immediate benefit for the busy sole tradesman. Colin Evans, director of the Construction Skills Council, suggested the training of apprentices, not tradesmen. With Wickes' research showing that 62% of tradesmen don't have the skills required to make Green Deal adaptation and that 57% were unwilling to take a course, apprentice upskilling would provide a two-way solution.

Industry insiders also called for the Government to look further afield than individual homeowners to enable the Green Deal to make a real impact.

It was believed the deal would work best through big projects (such as the updating of entire streets) run by bigger management structures which would require the services of smaller traders. The scheme could help initiate an entire new project management arm of the construction industry and also help tackle the 95% of existing UK housing stock in need of updating, according to Chris Baines, honorary president of AECB, the Sustainable Building Association.

"A scheme such as Green Deal might begin to have more impact if it could be applied in a co-ordinated way, for whole streets, or through portfolio property managers such as universities. However, this would require the input of project managers capable of co-ordinating the work of a range of suppliers and small businesses across a number of sites. This is very rare in the UK industry."

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