Opinion Piece by Tom Reynolds
The Prime Minister’s proclamation that the UK will “Build Build Build” to recovery provides both opportunities and challenges for the construction industry and its supply chain. The opportunities are obvious – if Boris Johnson delivers on his aspiration there will be a massive uptick in demand for the whole sector. After the catastrophic shock caused by the pandemic, that demand-side boost will be warmly welcomed. In this article, it is some of the challenges that I want to focus on.
Firstly, a major and well-known limitation on the capacity of the construction sector is a shortage of skilled labour, a problem sure to be exacerbated by tighter immigration laws after the transition period. Greater availability of workers due to growth in unemployment is no help without a huge boost in training capacity. Already, only a fraction of those operating as plumbers, for example, are members of CIPHE or Watersafe with ideal skills levels. Fittings manufacturers have been concerned for years about the poor installation of their products, and the unfortunate impact it has on their brands. We need to find a way to rapidly increase the availability of labour and improve skills levels.
Another problem is a lack of capacity in public sector procurement. The apparent inability of public bodies to consider anything other than price on projects when most agree that quality and efficiency should be prioritised is deeply frustrating, whether architect, contractor or supplier seeking specification.
Capacity in the planning system is a familiar challenge for the construction sector, and politicians’ go-to problem to be fixed. It’s no surprise that MHCLG have been quick out of the blocks in proposing sweeping planning reforms, now under consultation. While the Government hope quick permission will mean homes can be built out by developers within 30 months, TCPA has already warned that “steamrolling over people’s views will be divisive and counterproductive.” Even when there are “shovel-ready solutions” from the Government, these are knotty issues it seems.
A further complex issue is how we achieve a fast and radical improvement on the sustainability of the UK’s built environment. I welcome that the aforementioned planning reforms will have an ambition for new homes to be ‘zero carbon ready’. However, “Build Build Build” must stretch to home improvement and retrofit of the UK’s 29 million existing homes if we are serious about achieving our national environmental goals. The establishment of the Green Homes Grant (GHG) was a pleasing nod to this reality, but £2billion is not enough resource and the scope of the scheme is too narrow.
This brings me to a personal peeve. The GHG makes no mention of water-efficient fittings as either a primary or secondary fundable measure. “Planning for the Future” refers to energy-efficiency nine times and carbon-reduction six times. It mentions water once, and even then, in the context of past reforms. How can we build back better and greener after COVID-19 if we are ignoring the natural resource most fundamental to handwashing?
It’s not as if water scarcity isn’t well understood. Water companies are forecasting large gaps between the level of available water resource and the level of demand. Due to climate change and more extreme weather patterns the level of water available is reducing. Simultaneously, population growth is increasing demand. By 2050 the UK could have a structural deficit of up to 8,200 Mlitres of water a day – over eight times the current daily consumption of Wales. This is what the CEO of the Environment Agency has described as the “jaws of death” and an “existential crisis” in the UK within 25 years.
On an infrastructure level, water companies need support in increasing supply and reducing the 3,200 Mliters lost through leaky pipes every day. On an individual dwelling level, fittings manufacturers are constantly innovating more water-efficient bathrooms. Careful consideration needs to be given to policy levers that incentivise the retrofit of more efficient fittings and, crucially, nudge consumer behaviour. Government and the construction industry must become alive to the fact that improving the water efficiency performance of our buildings is as vital as achieving net-zero carbon.
The final challenge I want to touch on relates to product compliance. Now, there are too many bathroom products available in the UK marketplace that do not adhere to the harmonised standards required by the Construction Products Regulation. This is frustrating for credible companies like those in BMA membership, who go through testing and production of DOPs at significant costs, only to be undercut by the less scrupulous. More importantly, non-compliance puts user’s safety at risk and is ripping consumers off when products do not perform as they should. The gradual move from CE mark to UKCA adds some complexity to this challenge but could be a one-off opportunity for the whole construction supply chain to get compliance right.
For many bathrooms fitting the Water Supply (Water Fitting) Regulations adds an additional layer of complexity on compliance. I recognise the challenge for buyers and specifiers here, but I urge all to focus on the demonstration of conformity rather than demanding any specific approval schemes that can limit choice.
So, the opportunities of “Build Build Build” come with a smorgasbord of challenges. With recognition of what is needed, collaboration and an intent to succeed, none of these challenges are insurmountable. It is refreshing that at last, with a great level of prominence, there is recognition of the importance of the construction sector and its supply chain as a catalyst for the UK’s recovery.
Tom Reynolds is Chief Executive of the Bathroom Manufacturers Association (BMA)