Our exclusive survey shows the industry would prefer a ‘soft Brexit’ with as little disruption to the status quo as possible

Chloe McCulloch

Communities secretary Sajid Javid unveiled his housing white paper this week saying the aim was to “speed up delivery” of housebuilding – a worthy ambition and one that successive governments have failed to achieve. His diagnosis that the “housing market is broken” will come as no surprise to the millions of aspiring home owners with no prospect of stepping on the first rung of the housing ladder, condemned to years of paying exorbitant rent while unable to save for a deposit.

So the shift in focus from starter homes to a wider “range of affordable housing” – including affordable and secure rent – is a welcome one, as is a £3bn fund to support smaller housebuilders and off site construction. Other measures, such as pressuring housebuilders to accelerate work on land with planning consent are more controversial. Developers are already warning that a punitive approach to what is known as landbanking could in fact slow down the delivery of housing.

Our research shows that the industry is strongly opposed to the prospect of a clampdown on migration, with 84% saying some or all construction workers should have free movement under the final Brexit deal

But in general, as a package of reforms the white paper seems to be a serious attempt to address deep structural problems in the housing market and to enable the industry to hit the government’s target of 1 million homes by 2020. But there is one blatant oversight in this grand plan – who is going to build all these homes? The government can set all the targets it cares to, but without the right people with the right skills, its plans won’t get further than the sheets of white paper they are printed on.

This week, Building has published the results of its Brexit survey asking the industry what it needs from the government’s exit deal with the EU. And the response was impressive – more than 2,000 readers took part, with the vast majority expressing deep anxieties about the future ability of the industry to deliver what the country needs in terms of infrastructure and housing in a post-Brexit landscape.

Access to scarce construction skills was one of the major concerns among respondents. An overwhelming majority – 84% – felt there needs to be a clearer plan to tackle the skills shortage in the UK before any visa restrictions are imposed. Our research shows that the industry is strongly opposed to the prospect of a clampdown on migration, with 84% saying some or all construction workers should have free movement under the final Brexit deal.

Construction often stands accused of failing to speak with one voice, but the results of the survey show it is capable of a good degree of uniformity, emphatically coming down on one side of the skills and migration debate. Of course, our survey included a wide range of opinions, from those who have not accepted the result of the EU referendum – one Remainer wrote “Don’t leave. Realise it is a massive mistake” – to the other end of the spectrum with Brexiters wanting to sever all ties with the EU with immediate effect: “Brexit ASAP”.

However, the vast majority of comments in the survey revealed an industry that has accepted the vote but would prefer a “soft Brexit”, involving as little disruption to the status quo as possible. This is illustrated by respondents’ preference to phase Brexit in as slowly as possible: 43% said any transitional arrangement period should be five years or over, while 38% opted for two to four years.

Clearly, the industry’s majority view puts it at odds with the government’s current stance on many of the crucial issues. While Theresa May is keen to keep her negotiating tactics under wraps, last week she was persuaded to reveal her core “12 principles”, including a strong commitment to controlling migration and to seeking new trade agreements – confirming that the government intends to pursue a “hard Brexit”.

But this apparent schism between the industry and government need not be permanent. For its part the government has hinted migration controls could be phased in to allow businesses preparation time, and it has shown an interest in supporting sectors to fill their skills gap. And as the many positive comments from our respondents demonstrate, a growing number in construction are beginning to recognise the opportunities Brexit could bring, such as simplifying procurement rules to make the UK more competitive once it is out of the EU and on its own.

Following your valuable input, this survey has enabled us to collate your views, and so now the important task is to help them to be heard at government level. Over the coming weeks we will unveil the next steps in the Building A Better Brexit campaign to help put construction’s priorities on the government’s agenda. Meanwhile, keep your comments coming via our website.

Chloë McCulloch, managing editor