Many people seem to think that innovation in construction is something that happens as a matter of course. From Palaeolithic caves to living in Neolithic mud brick houses; from Greek lintels to Norman arches; and from massive stone walls to slender steel frames, improvements in design, content and material efficiencies are a signal feature of progress over time. While it appears that living conditions improve naturally as history moves forward, in reality progress requires conscious human intervention to challenge and change the old, less efficient, less imaginative way of doing things.
And yet, the construction industry is stuck in the past. Over the decade to 2016, the National House Building Council Foundation confirmed that a constant 85% – 92% of new housing has been constructed using traditional brick/block masonry construction, a labour-intensive mode of building that has ostensibly remained the same for centuries. Essentially, clay raw material is dug from the ground, formed in moulds, placed in kilns and fired into bricks, these are transported by lorry across the country where armies of labourers work for weeks and months, in sun and rain, to place one on top of another.
There was a brief period, post-war, when new prefabricated techniques were almost commonplace. According to Chartered Surveyors, Peter Barry, between 1945 and 1955 “around 20% of new housing was system-built, amounting to some 500,000 units, with a further 750,000 units being constructed between 1955 and 1970”. However, sixty to seventy years later, we still sanctify the “wet trades” – sticking block upon block, slapping plaster on it and painting it by hand.
In 2010, at the height of the recession, there were 1.2 million construction labourers engaged in laborious processes. Surely, if innovation is required, here is a good place to start. But we have to recognise that if such an innovation revolution is to happen, then it is not going to be painless. As a vociferous opponent of Thatcher’s assault on the miners in the 1980s, I still realise that the transformation of the construction industry is going to have to be as radical if it is to be meaningful. Until then, we’ll continue to read reports that bemoan the lack of innovation. “It’s time to modernise the construction industry”, says the 2016 Farmer Review. You don’t say!
Brexit could be the one significant spark to help generate the innovative construction sector that we all need. It should, and must, force the construction industry to innovate.
In the UK, around 7% of construction workers come from other EU countries and 3% come from outside the EU. The Office for National Statistics reports that London’s construction sector relies on 28% of workers in London coming from EU countries, and 7% migrant labour from outside the EU. Of the EU workers, the majority are from central and eastern Europe, while 10% are Irish. Even though the Farmer Report cites an extant decline in the construction labour force due not to Brexit, but demographics (there will be, it says, a “20%-25% decline in the available labour force within a decade”), it is reasonable to assume that Brexit may indeed result in a shake-out of foreign workers labouring on sites across the country. But this needs careful assessment, not knee-jerk reactions.
Polish plumbers do not relish sticking their hands up the U-bends of the British public for the rest of their days when they could be employed back home laying much needed infrastructure; not all Romanian labourers are content to shovel gravel on the driveways of East Cheam when they could be building houses in their home towns to create a better quality of life for their children. The success of EU free movement has created a flow of poor people desperate to make something of themselves away from home, but not all enjoy the menial lifestyle that they have to endure to achieve it. It takes skilled and semi-skilled labour away from where it is needed.
Of course, like the characters in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, working abroad for short stints to amass some cash is a legitimate sacrifice for many. But many migrants will not be sad to leave their badly-paid, labour-intensive, shift-working existence crammed in the modern-day tenements of North London, provided that there are opportunities elsewhere. This is not a legitimisation of “a tough immigration policy” (as Brexit ought to provide the chance for a more liberal immigration policy), but a chance to improve working conditions and modernise a Dickensian industry. Industry needs will change and the consequence should be to allow people to make their own decisions rather than be driven by capital flows and an iniquitous labour market.
But if Brexit makes it more difficult to recruit menial manual labour (and there is nothing yet to say that it inevitably will), then this could provide the stimulus for innovative change. “Cheap labour” and “labour intensive” are the hallmarks of developing countries and nothing to be proud of. Mechanisation and investment in the next round of productive forces are important for the development of society through the liberation of workers from common drudgery.
The Independent recently described Brexit’s potential impact on the farming sector. By withdrawing the Common Agricultural Policy subsidies and the looming threat of restrictions on cheap, exploited Bulgarian and Romanian crop-pickers, there ought to be a drive for efficiency and innovation. One picker describes starting work at 5am until late afternoon earning £500-a week for six weeks of six-day work. Meanwhile, The Economist reported that “Brexit will force a change in farming that could change the face of rural Britain” and after reading about the paltry wages, we might add, “for the better”. Of course, it might simply increase the price of strawberries and seasonal vegetables. It might be that farming industry will refuse to play ball and British grapes will literally wither on the vine post-Brexit. But it should present an opportunity that can and should be seized. Cheap labour contents itself with a lack of innovation – why invest in machines when you have thousands of expendable workers willing to slave for a pittance? This is something that we ought not to condone.
Drawing the analogy back to the construction industry, the same opportunity prevails. Just as machines may pick crops, so machines may spray paint houses. Factories might make mass housing. Machines might 3D-print homes.
Of course, maybe construction costs will rise. Indeed, maybe construction workers’ wages will rise (surely no bad thing). But maybe, all those prefabrication and modern methods of construction innovators – who for years have not been able to get a foothold in the market because of the closed shop of the labour-intensive, old-fashioned construction industry – will suddenly find that they are being listened to. Suddenly “creativity” – the lifeblood of architecture – may be allowed to flourish. This could be the basis of a rational construction industry.
Obviously, none of this will happen if we perceive Brexit as a danger. But it is equally true that Brexiteers need to see this as a challenge. It is not a done deal. Innovation requires conscious planning for results to mean anything. Simply shaking up industry doesn’t mean that industry will respond positively or progressively. It requires political will. As the Egan Report said exactly 20 years ago: “We are issuing a challenge to the construction industry to commit itself to change”. Let’s seize the day.
The post Brexit provides the opportunity for a revolution in the construction industry appeared first on BrexitCentral.
The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 recently gave coverage to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement that Britain will be welcomed into the Trans-Pacific Partnership with “open arms” after it leaves the EU. In a bizarre turn of phrase, the BBC presenter described this as a ‘tonic for Brexiteers’.
The referendum – that decisive, once-in-a-generation ‘People’s Vote’ – took place on 23rd June 2016. Whether you voted Leave or Remain is now moot. To quote one MP: ‘We are all Brexiteers now’. The people of this country gave their clear instruction and the Government must deliver on it. Therefore, the BBC was incorrect. What Prime Minister Abe stated was not a tonic for Brexiteers but a tonic for the whole United Kingdom.
Yet from spring 2018 onwards we have witnessed a co-ordinated and unrelenting media assault on Brexit by multinational companies and their confederations. Day after day, the British public and its Government have been subjected to thinly-veiled threats from those corporations and interest groups with most to gain from the status quo. Their arguments about the dangers of Brexit have been allowed to percolate freely down into our national consciousness without any analysis or rebuttal. We presumed the battle was won and thus have surrendered the business argument.
Suddenly Brexit had stopped being a cut and thrust of differing opinions and become a torrent of carefully orchestrated negativity. What was missing was the voice of businesses that were positive and optimistic about the future of a sovereign Britain – the hundreds and thousands of smaller businesses with no lobbying power and fragmented representation who saw opportunity from Brexit as a catalyst for change. So it was that the Alliance of British Entrepreneurs (or, like the Japanese Prime Minister, ABE for short) was founded out of frustration by me and Ed Harden.
ABE set out to give those smaller businesses a banner under which to gather and a mouthpiece to amply their voice. Our great aim was to remind both the Government and the British public that business does not start and end with Airbus and the CBI. In late September, 200 of our business supporters wrote an open letter to the Daily Telegraph in support of a Canada-style free trade deal. We have since, in true entrepreneurial style, grown explosively, nearly doubling in size in a couple of weeks.
We are often asked why we refer to our business supporters as entrepreneurs. In our mind’s eye, it is easy to imagine an entrepreneur as a certain type of person. Someone involved in the tech industry perhaps. Someone modern, disruptive and metropolitan. Indeed, we have a number of supporters who fit those criteria. However, for ABE, being an entrepreneur is about a mindset. To us, entrepreneurship is characterised by adaptability and a positive outlook coupled with a firm sense of self-belief and a willingness to take responsibility. This definition transcends background, sector, geography or gender. As such, we are proud to have the backing of hundreds of entrepreneurs: from the sole traders in the West Midlands to the CEO of a London-based asset manager and all the family businesses, manufacturing firms, haulage companies and fishing boats in between.
Whilst we have had some initial success, we face two great challenges. The first of these is apathy.
Brexit didn’t end with the referendum. That vote was the first shot in a battle that is now being fought hand to hand in the mud with both sides dug in. The public at large are tired by years of political wrangling and are perplexed as to why it is taking so long. Even amongst those small businesses and entrepreneurs who feel passionately about the future of this country many are too busy running their day-to-day activities – investing, training and expanding – to devote time to campaigning. We have tried to counter this by doing their campaigning for them. Seeking their views on a light-touch basis and then doing the leg work to get them heard as one of a hundred voices singing the same tune.
The second great challenge was communication. SMEs don’t have corporate PR firms on eye-watering monthly retainers. Indeed, most don’t even have a separate media department. Even where there was the will to share their view, this was drowned out by the lobbying and closed forums of the big business and establishment set-up. We knew we lacked the resources to broadcast at a conventional level. Instead, using the power of social media and specific, targeted correspondence we have aimed to create enough noise to be heard. Our short-term goal has been to disrupt and interfere with the prevailing message of the big lobby groups. Every time they have a press release ready, we’ll be there putting one of our entrepreneurs forward with a counter that relates to their own business, hitting their statements with real world, real business rebuttals.
We admit that our entrepreneurs don’t and can’t always speak for their thousands of employees. But as the strategic decision-makers for those firms, they have looked at the future and seen a Britain that prospers outside the EU: a free-trading, dynamic Britain whose regulation stays lithe and reactive to changes in the global economy; a Britain that looks resolutely outwards and unrelentingly seeks out new global alliances and partnerships. This Britain cannot exist under the Chequers proposal. ABE will continue to lobby for a Canada-style free trade deal that respects the referendum and allows British business to once again take its place at the top table of global trade.
This great and noble opportunity must not be squandered.
Find our more about the Alliance of British Entrepreneurs at their website
The news that Boeing has just opened a £40 million manufacturing facility in Sheffield to make parts for their latest 737 and 767 aircraft, which are assembled in the United States, serves to remind us that our world-class aerospace business is global and to torpedo the claims of Airbus – and some car manufacturers – that Brexit will threaten jobs in the UK because it will cause havoc to the just-in-time manufacturing process. Boeing’s plans call for the production of 52 aircraft a month with thousands of parts being shipped every month to Portland, Oregon, so timely delivery will be just as critical to Boeing as it is to Airbus.
So, the question arises: if Boeing can operate a slick production process using parts made in Britain, shipped six times the distance to their assembly line compared to shipping Airbus parts from Bristol or North Wales to Hamburg or Toulouse (and BAE ship 15% of every single F35 Joint Strike Fighter to the Lockheed Martin plant in Dallas), what is Airbus’s problem? The answer lies not in economics but in politics.
As is increasingly clear, despite protestations to the contrary, elements of the EU really do want to punish the UK for having had the insolence to Leave and to deter other countries from following our lead. France seems to be the most determined to press for punishment, partly to try to seize the City of London’s business and partly to promote President Macron as the new EU leader as Angela Merkel’s grip weakens.
Recently there were reports, subsequently denied, that President Macron intended to require UK visitors to France to obtain visas whilst those Brits with homes in France would immediately upon Brexit become illegal visitors. Apparently, the word ‘not’ was omitted in translation and the proposed new law designed to prevent such action. However, Dominic Raab subsequently spoke about the possibility of France ‘deliberately’ delaying lorries entering the port of Calais.
Earlier this year, the EU announced the creation of a fund to develop new defence equipment, a programme from which the UK, home to Europe’s largest defence contractor and with the largest defence budget in Europe, was to be excluded. Furthermore, the UK is to be ejected from key parts of the EU satellite navigation programme, Galileo, despite having contributed £1.2 billion and constituting, through Airbus subsidiary Surrey Satellites, a key portion of the technology. Any reasonable person would ask where was the commercial, let alone defence, interest in excluding such a major European player. Again, the answer lies not in economics but in politics: the UK has to be punished even if it means damaging the defence interests of the continent.
As we approach the sombre commemorations of the centenary of the 1918 armistice which ended The Great War, it is worth pausing to reflect on the role of some of those nations who, in the famous words of Margaret Thatcher, ‘we either rescued or defeated’. The British people have voted freely but decisively to Leave the EU, yet face punitive measures by some on the continent for whose liberation in two world wars this country and its Empire shed 1,300,000 lives. Whilst falling over themselves to secure favourable trade deals with the rest of the world, the EU’s leaders have adopted the reverse policy with their closest neighbour, refusing to discuss trade arrangements before sorting out an artificial problem of their creation by weaponising the Irish border, a clear solution to which has been proposed by the ERG and others.
In another example of the pathetic approach in Brussels, I understand that the EU’s aviation safety agency, EASA, is debarred from discussing with our CAA how we manage air travel post Brexit. Given the UK’s prominence in air transport, with Heathrow being the most important transatlantic gateway airport in Europe, why is EASA not engaged in constructive debate? Iceland, Norway and Switzerland are members of EASA even though they are not EU members, so why remove the UK? Again, the answer lies in politics, not economics. They want to cause inconvenience, if not chaos, to rub home to the others the cost of recovering national sovereignty.
All this illustrates the fundamental naivety exhibited by the UK at the outset of the negotiations, namely that if we conceded and acted in a friendly fashion the EU would respond in similar vein, leading many Leave voters to question the motives of those in charge. We never acknowledged the determination of the Commission to protect The Project (to create the United States of Europe) and we failed to recognise the strength of the cards in our hands.
So we threw away the security card, offering unconditional support to the 27, only to be rewarded by exclusion from EU defence programmes. The Prime Minister offered to pay a staggering £39 billion of our money in return for – nothing. Well, if she thinks British taxpayers will tolerate that, I fear she is mistaken. I can no longer withhold my vote in Parliament, but I can withhold my taxes unless I see a fair trade deal is secured.
- John Allan feels the proposal avoids the [...]
- Ex-minister expected to make first speech [...]
- Corbyn will tell business leaders a ‘good [...]
- There are enough Tory rebels backing the plan to defeat the government with support from opposition parties
- Jeremy Corbyn will accuse the government of having delivered a 'worst of all worlds' deal
Brexit: Theresa May pours cold water on move to renegotiate deal as cabinet ministers call for rewriteThe prime minister will visit Jean-Claude Juncker this week for further talks focussing on the outline future relationship