“This represents one of the biggest threats to the UK construction industry.”
That was the stark view of Murray Coleman, the chief executive of Bovis Lend Lease, when speaking at Building’s Business Leaders Forum earlier this week. And no, he wasn’t referring to untrained baggage handlers, but to the possibility that the UK might tighten its borders after a report by a House of Lords committee that found Britain derived no net benefit from immigration.
Is he overstating things? There are no official statistics on how dependent the industry is on immigrant labour, despite the estimate by Ucatt that there are 350,000 workers in the UK. Also, although Polish workers are now common, they belong to the EU, so their movement cannot be restricted. This latter point is also made in the conclusions of the report. Its main point, though, is that although immigration of 190,000 a year has boosted GDP, it has had “little or no positive impact on the living standards of the existing population”.
It is this point that so concerned Coleman and a number of other speakers on Tuesday, including Rob Smith, senior partner at Davis Langdon. It is well known that the recent construction boom would not have been possible without migrants. Without them, we would not have the schools, hospitals, roads and homes that we do. The fact that the government is planning to phase in an Australian-style points system is not in itself a worry. What is, is that ministers anxious to throw some raw meat to the Daily Mail’s readership will raise the bar too high. The industry needs to better state its case now in order to prevent this. The obvious place to start is the recently published report by ConstructionSkills into Britain’s skills requirements. It shows construction employs 2.6 million people and will need almost 2.8 million by 2012. This translates into 88,400 new workers coming into the industry each year. The number of people trained by ConstructionSkills each year in the UK is 8,500, so the equation can only be balanced by migration.
If the construction industry is to become as important as Douglas McWilliams, the founder of CBRE, claimed in his presentation to the forum, then we will need to face up to the fact that we will need to stand up for our Polish, Saffer and Kiwi workers. Nobody else will do it for us.
Blame the bag men
There was a groan from the audience at this year’s Building Awards on Tuesday night when T5 was mentioned. Predictable perhaps, given this week’s debacle, but disappointing for the teams involved in delivering the £4.3bn behemoth (page 10). Their efforts have been overshadowed by the failure to manage the state-of-the-art baggage handling system. That this appears to be entirely the fault of British Airways is scant consolation for these teams and tarnishes what should still go down as one of the industry’s shining achievements.
Stuart Macdonald, deputy editor