How Labour can keep its manifesto promise to power up construction

Suzannah Nichol is chief executive of Build UK

Homes and infrastructure have been at the heart of manifestos and debates over the past six weeks, and Labour, the party that promised to ‘turbocharge’ housebuilding, is now in power with all eyes watching to see those election pledges delivered.

The challenges faced by the new government have been spelt out along the way. Most young people cannot afford to buy their first home without financial support from someone other than a mortgage company. Growing families cannot afford to move, and there are not enough of the right houses in the right places for those looking to downsize.

Infrastructure projects are in short supply with budgets consistently overspent and programmes continually delayed. The planning system is ever changing, becoming more complex and taking more time, with a barrage of different reasons of why ‘you can’t build here’ increasing pressure on ageing and insufficient infrastructure. The market is ‘stuck’ at every level.

So there is a real opportunity for the new government if it is prepared to think big and long term.

If it was easy to build 300,000 houses each year, decarbonise and deliver the infrastructure the country needs, then the previous administration would have done it. By thinking – and more importantly doing things – differently, there is a chance that by the end of its first term Labour could be delivering on its ambitions and supporting a sustainable construction sector.

Local plans, national strategy

Housing cannot be looked at in isolation; it has to be homes and infrastructure and at scale. We need local plans that feed into a national strategy, with the right numbers of good quality homes, where people want to live at a price they can afford, built in conjunction with the required infrastructure, as already set out by the National Infrastructure Commission. But it must come as a package, and support will be much more forthcoming if businesses have certainty of pipeline and people can see how local development will improve their lives and communities.

The government has a key role to play in delivering homes and infrastructure and so does the industry. Housing is a social issue but we could deliver much more, at pace, using modern technology and more efficient practices, which would also help to resolve some of the perennial skills challenges.

By adopting and developing the systems we have in place, the whole supply change could focus on doing whatever it is they do in the most efficient way to deliver high quality, safe buildings and infrastructure.

However, any step-change in delivery will require investment and that needs to come from both the public and private sectors. This can be achieved but only if we have a big and long-term plan to give those holding the purse strings, as well as businesses across the whole construction supply chain, the confidence that it is worth investing in and doing things differently.

Build UK worked with the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) before the election to publish an open letter with advice for the new government. We are now looking to build on those 5 Ps by calling on the prime minister and his new cabinet to focus on the following:

  1. An agreed and funded PIPELINE of sustainable economic and social infrastructure, which is regularly reviewed and updated, providing certainty and continuity for the next 10 years
  2. Suitable and sufficient PLACES TO LIVE delivered through improved planning, more suitable sites, and properly funded retrofit programmes
  3. Effective and efficient PROCUREMENT of projects, including implementation of the Construction Playbook, appropriate allocation of risk and fair payment practices
  4. Enhanced PERFORMANCE throughout the supply chain, with clear regulation and standards consistently applied to deliver safe buildings and high-quality infrastructure
  5. Investment in the development of PEOPLE supported from education into employment and throughout their careers.

There is nothing new here as anyone who has read the myriad industry reports will testify, but a focus on long-term goals with a plan for their implementation that the industry can get behind is key.

Change always offers opportunity and now is the time to work together to take advantage of that opportunity – we are in this together and we can achieve so much more by being organised and playing to our strengths.

We know that construction is a good multiplier across the country with every £1 invested delivering £2.92 of benefit. It drives private investment, with new and improved homes and infrastructure increasing productivity in all other sectors – a virtuous upward cycle for individuals, communities, businesses and UK plc.

By focussing on the 5 Ps, starting with agreeing and funding a national infrastructure plan to be delivered over the next 10 years with a responsible owner within the Treasury accountable for its delivery, this government can really begin to power up construction and grow the UK economy.

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