We need to be more constructive where housebuilders are concerned


This may seem mad, but I’m going to say it anyway: let’s hear it for builders.

That’s right, the butt of jokes about bum cracks (pardon the pun), pilloried for wolf-whistling, and, if it’s not their sexism, their laziness and slovenliness, and their cutting of corners. Oh, and some fly-tipping as well.

Those builders. The ones who, it is widely claimed, never appear to be working, more interested in yet another cuppa and an ogle of The Sun than exerting themselves in the interests of doing a decent job.

Largely, this is now consigned to the past. Of course, there are exceptions. But I maintain that, during my lifetime, this is one industry that has transformed itself beyond recognition.

Remember when you could wander on to building sites freely, when they weren’t locked, when debris cluttered pavements, and accidents were frequent? When builders would wander off site and not return for months? When properties were made from shoddy materials and nothing appeared to fit or operate properly?

Those days, I submit, have more or less gone (not completely – there are still bad apples, still those who are rightly described as sharks). But you would not know so by the comic stereotyping that the industry attracts. Housebuilders, and by extension, the wider property development sector, deserve greater appreciation by politicians, local and national, and from the Government.

Yes, I know there was Grenfell, but was that tragedy caused by the specifications laid down by the owners, or by those responsible for adding the dangerous cladding? We shall see.

And there was the scandal of the Presidents’ Club dinner, heavily attended by property barons, while tales abound of lurid goings-on at MIPIM, the industry’s international annual get-together in Cannes.

Nevertheless, the industry as a whole should be better acknowledged and understood than it is. Construction is a vital part of our economy, a key driver of employment and growth. One that, in the adequate provision of affordable homes, fulfils a major plank of policy on both sides of the political spectrum.

But instead of acknowledging the risks the builders take, the skill and sheer expert knowledge that goes into identifying a suitable site, designing, scoping, obtaining the necessary permissions, ordering the materials, recruiting, training and managing the labour to erect the new edifice – and that’s all before it’s marketed – they are unappreciated, not listened to by those in power, vilified by nimbys and environmental campaigners, and targeted by Chancellors seeking easy tax wins.

Some of the opprobrium may on occasion be justified, but for all property developers, all the time?

Earlier this month, the Prime Minister promised to “restore the dream of home ownership”. Theresa May urged builders directly to “step up and do their bit”.

The industry has been set a challenge by her Government to deliver one million homes, and it’s on the right path: there were 217,000 net additions in the year to April 2017, the third highest number since the early 1970s and up 74 per cent in the past four years.

Meanwhile, industry customer satisfaction surveys show that build quality is improving at the same time that output increases.

Two interventions, though, should give the Prime Minister pause. One came from Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation, who told ministers at the organisation’s annual conference: “Government has quite rightly recognised the social and political need for them to address the chronic housing shortage we face. Housebuilders have risen to the challenge and delivered huge increases in supply, whilst providing increasing contributions to local infrastructure, amenities and affordable housing.

“At the same time the industry has invested hugely in training, recruitment and land to ensure it is geared up to deliver government promises. The industry has also reacted decisively to reverse the slight, but unacceptable falls in customer service and quality, something that takes commitment from board level down.

“The constant criticism of the industry often fails to recognise the huge progress being made. Negative perceptions also make further increases in supply more difficult by encouraging and providing excuses for the anti-development lobby and local authorities who don’t want to build. It also makes attracting the brightest and best of your people more difficult. Housebuilders across the country face huge challenges getting sites agreed and recruiting skilled workers, issues made more difficult by negative perceptions of the industry.

“The big increases in supply we have seen in recent years are on the back of successful policy introductions and private sector investment. We are calling on government to continue to work with the industry constructively to deliver further mutually beneficial goals.”

The second was from Tony Pidgley, 70-year-old industry veteran, who set up Berkeley Group in 1976 and still has a £185m holding in the leading housebuilder. Pidgley is a doyen, someone other property players respect, and, in many cases, dearly wish to follow. Pidgley has given his reasons why he would not be helping the Government in its bid to solve the housing crisis.

And what were they? Only the Government’s own policies, including high levels of stamp duty, the move against buy-to-let landlords, and an obstructive planning system.

It’s not an industry that helps itself. It could do with organising and galvanising, explaining the good it does, the need it serves, the economic and social contribution it makes, rather than allowing its critics to revel in the bad.

But it deserves a better hearing, not least in the media and corridors of power.

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, and executive director of C|T|F Partners, the campaigns and strategic communications advisory firm