No one is going anywhere fast. Freedom of movement will apply for at least the next two years, and if the UK wants to keep its access to the single market it must also keep its borders open. However, any threat of constricting housebuilders’ access to an already limited talent pool is a cause for concern.
The government must ensure that its new system of immigration provides the construction sector with enough skilled workers to build the homes and infrastructure projects the country needs, industry bodies have warned.
“The UK construction industry has been heavily reliant on migrant workers from Europe for decades now – at present, 12% of the British construction workers are of non-UK origin, said Brian Berry, chief executive of the FMB. “The majority of these workers are from EU countries such as Poland, Romania and Lithuania and they have helped the construction industry bounce back from the economic downturn when 400,000 skilled workers left our industry, most of which did not return. It is now the government’s responsibility to ensure that the free-flowing tap of migrant workers from Europe is not turned off. If Ministers want to meet their house building and infrastructure objectives, they have to ensure that the new system of immigration is responsive to the needs of industry.
“At the same time, we need to ensure that we invest in our own home-grown talent through apprenticeship training. We need to train more construction apprentices so we are not overly reliant on migrant workers from Europe or further afield. That’s why it’s so important that the government gets the funding framework right for apprenticeships – when you consider that this whole policy area is currently in flux, and then you add Brexit into the mix, it’s no exaggeration to say that a few wrong moves by the government could result in the skills crisis becoming a skills catastrophe. The next few years will bring unprecedented challenges to the construction and house building sector, and it’s only through close collaboration between the government and industry that we’ll be able to overcome them.”
Michael Holmes, spokesperson for The Homebuilding & Renovating Shows, worries that production will grind to a standstill without EU workers. “We can only hope that we vote to remain in the single market and retain the freedom of labour because I don’t think anything would get built if we didn’t bring in foreign construction workers,” he said. “You only have to go onto any building site to find that a huge amount of the skilled labour that we need is from Europe and elsewhere and if we were to close our borders and not bring in foreign labour, not only would that have a huge increase on prices, which some people would benefit from due to a rise in labour costs, but a lot less would be built and I really would worry about the ability as a nation to build enough homes if we didn’t have the construction force in place.”
Jeremy Blackburn, head of UK policy for RICS, said that the government must take action to safeguard the housebuilding industry’s workforce. “There are questions around the impact on access to a skilled workforce to meet the country’s construction and infrastructure needs,” he said. “We need reassurance that workforce migration will be addressed as a priority and it must not be allowed to impact on the attractiveness of the UK for investment, or as a place where major corporate and industrial occupiers want to do business.
“Given their role in the economy, property and construction require stability, clarity and certainty. With regards to our relationship with the EU, we need to ensure that investment into UK property and infrastructure continues. While Whitehall focuses energies into the exit negotiation, Britain must meet the housing supply and infrastructure challenges it continues to face. Projects or property transactions which were delayed, shelved or postponed due to the uncertainty surrounding the referendum must be given the confidence and security to begin to move again.”