“Build back better” has become the government’s mantra as it seeks to lift the country out of its Covid slump.
Ever since Boris Johnson announced an “infrastructure revolution” back in the summer, with a raft of commitments on building hospitals, schools and transport projects, the construction industry has been held up as central to the recovery plan.
Yet the double-whammy of Covid-19 and Brexit threaten to derail this ambition — especially in London.
According to new figures published this week by the Construction Products Association (CPA) based on ONS data, more than 60,000 bricklayers, builders and carpenters have left the capital’s construction industry in the last two years.
Much of this has been down to an exodus of skilled foreign labour: since the third quarter of 2018, the London construction industry has seen the number of EU-born workers fall from 115,000 to 53,000 — a decrease of 54 per cent.
As the Recruitment and Employment Confederation has pointed out, the decline may be due to EU workers deciding to move back home to see out the pandemic. With the end of free movement next month as a result of Brexit, many may choose not to return.
This could deal a hammer blow to the industry. As a result of skills shortages among the domestic workforce, skilled labour from abroad has for many years played a key role in keeping construction going.
Official figures show that back in 2011, one fifth of UK-born construction workers were aged 55 and above. That means that, by next year, those people will be reaching retirement age. This will be at the very moment that the limits on migrant workers under freedom of movement rules will come into effect, cutting off a vital source of workers.
Foreign-born construction workers have also compensated for the paucity of young people going into the industry. The Construction Industry Training Board estimates we need to recruit and train 31,600 workers until 2022 just to keep up with demand. But apprentice numbers last year amounted to just 694 starts, according to figures from the Federation of Master Builders.
The government has already missed one opportunity to address this. Back in September, the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), the body that advises the government on migration issues, recommended that construction firms should be allowed to recruit bricklayers from abroad after 1 January, when the points-based visa system comes in.
As Professor Brian Bell, the chairman of the MAC said at the time: “The number of migrants coming to work in the UK has already decreased and we are likely to see an increase in unemployment over the next year as the economic impact of the pandemic continues.”
Yet last month, home secretary Priti Patel flatly rejected the MAC’s recommendation.
The new figures showing the exodus of workers from the construction sector in London mean the government should now keep the situation under review and, if necessary, reverse the decision to omit bricklayers from the official Shortage Occupation List. Many in construction would like to see the government go further, and include other trades that are crucial for fulfilling building projects — such as plumbers and electricians, which are also experiencing a skills crunch.
Otherwise, the industry could be left desperately short of labour when it starts to recover, killing off the Prime Minister’s vision of an infrastructure boom just when it is needed most.
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