Construction, coronavirus and confusion: what the housing minister got wrong

Credit: Andrew Parsons – No 10 Downing Street

Yesterday’s coronavirus briefing from housing secretary Robert Jenrick promised to “reopen and renew the housing market and our construction industry”. Here’s our analysis of what was and wasn’t in the housing minister’s address.

‘Restart?’ We never stopped

“I am keen to get construction up and running,” Jenrick told the cameras at yesterday’s briefing. Erm, minister, when did it stop?

Construction work has been allowed to continue in England and Wales since the start of the lockdown. Not only that, ministers have repeatedly encouraged the industry to stay open.

At the lockdown’s peak, around 65 per cent of UK sites by value had closed down, but last week that figure was down to 37 per cent, according to data provider Glenigan.

Considering the abuse construction workers have been getting, the suggestion that construction should now be “reopening” is unhelpful in the extreme.

We know already that police were harassing construction workers who were allowed to go to work. This type of false narrative helps no one.

Housebuilder and contractor confusion

Mention the low margins of contractors to the British public and you’ll get a snort of derision. I know, having discussed the topic on BBC radio, and been subjected to a barrage of angry listeners’ replies about bonuses at housebuilders like Persimmon.

It’s one thing when the general public is misunderstanding the difference between the two, but the housing secretary blurring the lines is unhelpful.

The more worrying possibility is that government doesn’t actually understand the difference between the two.

A business that buys land and develops it is fundamentally different from one hired to carry out construction work. Their assets, cashflow, revenue streams and, crucially, profit is completely different.

Efforts to merge the two models have largely failed and deals such as Galliford Try’s sale of Linden Homes show that this particular trend is not changing any time soon.

Taylor Wimpey advert examined

Joking aside, Taylor Wimpey is actually a pretty good example for the housing minister to cite. Although singling them out for thanks was strange. Where the housebuilder has led the way most significantly is by keeping its supply chain in business with hard cash and concrete pledges.

Taylor Wimpey’s decision to offer £5m in advance, interest-free payments to self-employed members of its supply chain for future work to be carried out, deserves to be lauded as an example to follow.

Un-furloughing staff and giving NHS workers a discount on homes is great, but highlighting the supply chain support is very important.

Deaths not addressed

Official statistics show construction has a higher rate of coronavirus-related deaths when compared to many other sectors.

In an address “on housing and construction” the minister should at least acknowledge that. For obvious reasons, there has been more focus on the protection of workers in care homes and the risks for bus drivers and other key workers.

But any risks that may be affecting those in the construction industry need addressing too. The scientists CN asked about the coronavirus death rates by occupation specifically cited the construction industry as a worry when it came to  PPE and social distancing.

When the government wants to talk about coronavirus and construction, it should consider that too

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