An opportunity for the Built Environment to lead the UK’s green and economic recovery – UCEM Principal, Ashley Wheaton’s response to Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s ‘Build, build, build’ speech
Posted on: 2020-07-13
Timing is everything.
Whilst it’s true that many of the projects announced by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in his recent ‘build, build, build’ speech reiterated the plans contained in the Conservatives’ December 2019 manifesto, the rhetoric was timely for the Built Environment sector.
Positivity can be in short supply at the moment, understandably, and as the country prepares to end the furlough scheme and examine the true cost to the economy brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, hope needs to be provided.
With life slowly returning to some sort of normality, businesses need reassurance that things will pick up and, as Principal of a provider of supported online education for the Built Environment, it was pleasing to hear the focus on housebuilding and infrastructure from government.
That’s not to say that a positive reaction to the announcement doesn’t come with a few caveats and plenty of concerns were raised.
Leading environmental groups, such as the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Wildlife Trusts, claimed the changes to the planning system will lower environmental standards and afford the British countryside and wildlife less protection.
The Prime Minister was quoted as saying: “Newt-counting delays are a massive drag on the prosperity of this country”, which understandably provoked a lot of ire and concern about the environmental impact of easing red tape around planning. If the plans lead to lesser standards of biodiversity protection then this is something which should be addressed and not ignored by the sector.
Alister Scott, a Professor of Environmental Geography at Northumbria University, raised the alarm on the potential consequences of ripping up planning laws and made some salient points about how ‘build, build, build’ needs to align with reducing carbon emissions and ensuring the right outcomes for the country. Alister’s argument should be read at No.10 to ensure housebuilders, those seeking homes, businesses and the environment benefit from the investment in construction.
Rabina Khan – a Liberal Democrat councilor at Tower Hamlets Council – simultaneously claimed the plans didn’t go far enough whilst casting doubt on the government’s ability to achieve the newly proclaimed targets due to the backlog caused by the pandemic. Whilst that seems contradictory, where Rabina’s article focused on calling for remodeling existing national bodies and assets such as Network Rail to help deliver housing was where there lied a strong idea which government should give serious thought to.
Many critics bemoaned the lack of focus on jobs which is where support is needed to prop up the housebuilding and infrastructure projects envisioned.
The government’s answer
Last Wednesday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak attempted to assuage the fears invoked by last week’s ‘build, build, build’ speech with his Summer Statement, particularly in relation to the latter point on jobs.
In what appears to be a last throw of the dice in stimulating the economy before the furlough scheme is redacted, the Chancellor announced a job retention bonus for firms who retain furloughed staff and other measures designed to cushion the recession.
The stamp duty threshold was increased substantially to help homebuyers and cash incentives were offered to households which make their homes more energy efficient whilst £1bn will be granted to public sector bodies to improve energy efficiency and £50m was pledged towards a social housing decarbonisation fund.
Construction Talent Retention Scheme
Of particular note from the Chancellor’s plan was the launch of the Construction Talent Retention Scheme – an online portal supporting the redeployment of staff at risk of redundancy across the industry whilst enabling temporary employee loans between businesses. It is hoped the Scheme – a partnership between government and industry – will facilitate the employment of displaced workers from other sectors into the construction industry.
The programme is funded until the end of the financial year, providing a free platform for any businesses looking to hire while ensuring the talent for hire has the requisite skills and knowledge to make a success of themselves in the industry.
These additional announcements made by the Chancellor joined those made by the PM which included a review into government land to see how it could be put to better use through home building, improving the environment and contributing to net zero goals and funding to support housebuilders and homebuyers, with a focus on the north of England.
The call has been sent out to the sector and it is within the Built Environment’s grasp to accept it.
Already huge progress has been made by the sector to build more sustainably and this drive from the Built Environment coupled with the announced investment has the potential to lead both a green and economic recovery.
It’s an opportunity to hire, upskill and reskill people in the industry and create a marketplace for new technologies and energy-efficient methods so the sector can become a global leader. What’s needed now is the ability for employers to readily access and use all of the available funding options to implement the right skills development programmes quickly, if the grand plans to ‘build, build, build’ are to be realised.
The valid concerns raised by environmental groups and planning experts need to be addressed but, by using its initiative and continuing to build sustainably and ethically, the Built Environment can lead the way in lifting the country back off its knees.