The argument this week over whether Ed Balls meant to say we were in the worst recession for 100 years may have caused mild hysteria in the media, but it won’t have raised many eyebrows in construction
We know it’s that bad. Construction professionals are the fastest growing group on the dole queue, housebuilding is at its lowest level since 1924 and eight building firms are going bust every day. But what we don’t have in construction are the headline-grabbing figures, like the 27,000 jobs gone when Woolies closed or the 20,000 jobs lost globally at Nissan. Construction is a fragmented sector – when 120 jobs are lost at McCarthy & Stone or 400 go at Arup, it doesn’t make the 10 O’Clock News or receive a bailout like the car industry. But collectively 48,000 people or more have been made redundant in construction in the past three months and who knows how many are still to go?
So the launch this week, by a coalition of trade bodies, of the Get Britain Building Campaign is to be applauded. It’s a 10-point plan to get construction working. Some of these points are vague and long term, such as simplifying the planning process and cutting the regulatory burden. Reducing VAT to 5% on repair and maintenance, another proposal, has long been a rallying cry for the sector. One or two, such as a programme for making homes more energy efficient, could well be answered: the government was expected to announce on Thursday a programme for upgrading the energy efficiency of 7 million homes. But none of these will work if the first point is not won: “Ensure responsible lending to prudent borrowers.” At the moment even well-run firms that have no history of debt are being turned away for short-term loans purely because their business is construction.
If the dire state of housebuilding and the recalcitrance of lenders were not bad enough, hardly a week goes by without news of more delays in the public spending programme. What’s meant to be an area of acceleration for a government desperate to create jobs, is bewilderingly sluggish. This week we highlight yet more problems with the Building Schools for the Future programme.
Construction is a fragmented sector – when 400 jobs are lost at arup, it doesn’t make the 10 O’Clock News or receive a bailout like the car industry
Construction is hurting on every front – parliament needs to know about it. If you haven’t knocked down the door of your local MP’s office yet, why not? As Lorely Burt MP, Liberal Democrat shadow minister for business, enterprise and regulatory reform put it at the launch of the campaign: “Construction is like a road victim, bleeding to death by the side of the road.“ We need an ambulance – now.
Getting closer to the germans
There are many good reasons why German low-energy building standard Passivhaus is taking root in the UK (page 44). Its principles are simple – the best way to go low carbon is to build a well-insulated, airtight envelope that is nice to live in. It also comes with a copper-bottomed pedigree, with thousands of completed buildings over its 17-year history. This doesn’t mean the Code for Sustainable Homes is dying on its feet – rather, the government is in an ideal position to integrate Passivhaus principles into our own regulations. It already acknowledges our own standards should be “broadly equivalent” to Passivhaus by 2016 in its consultation on the definition of zero carbon. It should now put its money where its mouth is by bringing our energy regulations and Passivhaus standards closer together. It has an ideal opportunity to do this as the energy regulations are under revision. It’s just possible that the tortuous journey to zero carbon is about to get a bit simpler.