Queen’s speech sparks concern among housebuilders

The Queen’s speech went ahead yesterday (21 June) despite Theresa May failing to lock in enough votes to carry her agenda through. In a precarious position that no British Prime Minister has been in for decades, May leaned heavily on Brexit and quietly shelved her more contentious ideas.

“A bill will be introduced to repeal the European Communities Act and provide certainty for individuals and businesses,” the speech read. “This will be complemented by legislation to ensure that the United Kingdom makes a success of Brexit, establishing new national policies on immigration, international sanctions, nuclear safeguards, agriculture, and fisheries.”

The housebuilding industry had been hoping that, at the very least, the rights of EU workers would be guaranteed, however this wasn’t on the agenda. “While we note the commitment to ensuring that the UK can continue to attract the brightest and the best post Brexit, we are very disappointed that there is still no further clarity for our non UK EU national architect colleagues, who make such a fantastic contribution to the UK economy and to the quality of the built environment in the UK and across the world,” RIBA President Jane Duncan said.

As suspected, the Bill will end the free movement of people but that begs the question: what will replace it? “The Government has not set out what our post-Brexit immigration system will look like but it is crucial that key strategic industries, such as construction, are able to draw upon sufficient numbers of EU workers,” said Brian Berry, Chief Executive of the FMB. “EU tradespeople have come to play a crucial part in plugging the industry’s chronic skills shortages and if the ability to employ non-UK workers is curtailed, the Government’s housing and infrastructure plans will be no more than a pipe dream.

“Already, we’re starting to see a dramatic drop off in immigration from the kinds of countries that have typically supplied the construction sector with skilled talent. Statistics released today by the Oxford University’s Migration Observatory show a 35% fall in the number of national insurance numbers being issued to nationals from the ‘EU8’ countries that joined the EU in 2003. A lack of certainty over what rights EU citizens will have in the country post-Brexit will undoubtedly be a factor behind this decline. Given the ongoing need to recruit from abroad, we need a clear message from the Government that non-UK skilled workers are welcome now, and will be welcome come what May.”

While the speech touched on reforms in technical education, details were sadly lacking. “We are facing significant challenges in recruiting skilled construction workers and building the homes this country needs,” said Richard Beresford, chief executive of the NFB. “Although the government has acknowledged their significance in the Queen’s Speech, what the industry needs is clear guidance from a cohesive government.

“We are eagerly waiting for the Government to deliver its responses to consultations on the industrial strategy and the housing white paper, hoping they will produce deliverable plans to address the housing crisis and build the skilled workforce of tomorrow that we need today.”

Further concern was voiced over putting quantity before quality. “We urgently need more homes but it is vital they are of a high quality,” said Duncan. “High standards must not be sacrificed in the panic to meet necessary, but demanding, housing targets.”

Terrie Alafat, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing added, “It’s not just about building more homes, it’s about building more affordable homes for people on lower incomes. We believe more investment is urgently needed in genuinely affordable homes to rent. Figures released this week revealed that the number of homes for social rent built with government funding dropped by 51 per cent in 2016/17. One of the new government’s priorities should be rebalancing the housing budget – affordable housing currently accounts for just 16 per cent of total direct investment.”

Local governments are also worried that the Local Government Finance Bill was absent for the speech, threatening the spending power of local authorities. “It is hugely concerning that the government has not reintroduced the Local Government Finance Bill in the Queen’s Speech,” Lord Porter, Chairman of the Local Government Association. “The Bill was setting out the framework towards allowing local government in England to keep all of the £26 billion in business rates it raises locally each year and providing powers for Mayoral Combined Authorities and the Greater London Authority to raise an Infrastructure Supplement.

“To build desperately-needed homes, create jobs and school places, provide the dignified care for our elderly and disabled and boost economic growth, all councils also need freedom from central government to be able to take decisions over vital services in their area. Only with adequate funding and the right powers can local government help the government tackle the challenges facing our nation now and in the future.”

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