Industry must rise to meet UK economy growth

The UK’s economy had higher than expected growth in the three months to September, reveals the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics released today.

According to the ONS, gross domestic product (GDP) for the quarter rose by 0.4%, compared with 0.3% in each of 2017’s first two quarters.

Services and manufacturing industries grew during the period. Industrial production rose in July and August but construction output fell.

The financial markets are now indicating an 84% probability that rates will rise from their current record low of 0.25% when the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) meets on 2 November.

Construction is crucial

Construction output in the UK is currently more than £110 billion per annum and contributes 7% of GDP. Approximately 60% of construction output is new build, whilst 40% is refurbishment and maintenance.

The industry accounts for approximately 3 million jobs, 10% of total UK employment and includes both manufacturing and services.

Construction is a high cost, high risk, long-term activity, and so it’s performance is a good indicator of the health of the wider economy. When the economy falters, construction investment often grinds to a halt. However, today’s announcement suggests that our economy is beginning to recover after a tumultuous time post-Brexit. It is imperative that the construction industry recieves the support it needs from government to help continue this upward momentum.

What do you think the industry needs from Government? Let us know in the comments section below, or reach out to us on twitter @BuildSpecifier

The house building industry has set out a blueprint for how it believes the next Government can build on recent increases in supply and go even further to deliver more new homes in the next parliament.

Whilst supply has increased by over 50% in the past three years, if the industry is to deliver the increases all parties now agree are required, the next Government will need to continue to develop the policy agenda to allow existing builders to expand output even further and faster, and also support new entrants and struggling smaller firms. HBF’s proposals include:

  • Promoting policies that enable more builders to build – in particular SMEs – such that they can play their part in increasing output further
  • Providing certainty about the future of the Help to Buy scheme which has been absolutely key in the increases in supply to date
  • Delivering further improvements to the planning system. The time consuming and bureaucratic nature of system remains a constraint on increasing supply. Delays and costs deter new entrants and prevent construction work starting
  • Developing policies that encourage more specialist homes to be built to meet the needs of our ageing population
  • Encouraging better collaboration between infrastructure planners and house building. Builders pay millions each year towards improved infrastructure and more effective coordination would deliver considerable benefits for communities while accelerating delivery.

‘Blueprint 2017: A plan to deliver even more new homes’ sets out in detail what the new Government needs to do in each of these areas to increase supply to the level the country needs.

Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation said “Housing supply has increased significantly over the past three years, but if we are to raise our sights still further and better match supply to demand, Government needs to play its part.

“House builders already have a strong desire to continuing boosting supply, as evidenced by the huge investments being made by the country’s largest builders in the land and workforce needed to deliver additional homes. Ensuring a policy environment that promotes development will allow this investment to be sustained.

“Over decades building homes has become increasingly costly and risky as developers have been bogged down in red tape and inevitable delays. That has driven out small firms and prevented new entrants from contributing. Encouraging greater entrepreneurialism in the sector could help boost housing supply by tens of thousands a year.

“The social implications of our housing shortage are becoming ever more apparent with today’s young people struggling to own a home, high rental payments preventing them from saving for a mortgage deposit and ever more people in sub-standard or temporary accommodation and on local authority waiting lists. Building homes helps address social issues, whilst creating jobs both directly and in the supply chain and delivering investment in existing communities.

“Delivering more desperately needed high quality homes will both help strengthen our society and give our economy a boost in the uncertain years ahead.”

Spearheaded by strong performances from the housing and hotel, leisure & sport sectors, overall contract value for the construction industry in February reached £6.4 billion based on a three month rolling average, a 15.4 per cent increase on the same month last year.

According to the latest edition of the Economic & Construction Market Review from industry analysts Barbour ABI, contracts for housing projects reached £2.7 billion in February, the same figure as January 2017, which are the best performing months for residential building since the economic downturn. Coinciding with the strong housing figures, the hotel, leisure & sport sector construction contracts reached £736 million (see figure 1.1) on the month, a substantial 105.3 per cent increase compared to February 2016.

Barbour ABI

Looking across the other sectors within construction; Infrastructure accounted for £1.48 billion worth of construction contracts on the month, a 20.8 per cent increase on January. Commercial & retail projects also increased month on month by 17.5 per cent – the highest since September 2016, although values in the sector remain lower than previously when viewed over the longer term.

However it was the industrial sector that accounted for the most disappointing figures in February, with a 35 per cent year-on-year decrease and its lowest monthly total since October 2014.

Whilst the value of construction contracts remained very strong on the month, the number of projects saw a decline of 19.6 per cent compared with January. Larger, more valuable projects were commissioned in February, including projects such as a £400 million Port of Dover job and the Trafford Park Metrolink extension, valued at £350 million.

Commenting on the figures, Michael Dall, Lead Economist at Barbour ABI, said “After recent slumps in the infrastructure and commercial & retail sectors, it was encouraging to see both bounce back and produce encouraging figures in February, alleviating some of the pressure away from housebuilding.”

“With the hotel, leisure & sport sector recording its highest construction contract value in years, it will give the sector a well needed confidence boost, thanks greatly to a £400 million holiday resort, another major project given the go-ahead in February, a trend that made last month a positive one for construction.”

A deal has been signed between Birmingham City Council and the fifth largest property developer in China to focus on HS2 and deliver homes for Birmingham.

As part of the agreement, which is estimated to be worth up to £2bn to the local economy, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed company Country Garden intend to explore large-scale investment opportunities in and around the city.

The news of this agreement follows this week’s China visit by Prime Minister Theresa May for the G20 summit. Following the referendum result, the government have being investigating the potential for Chinese investment in major UK construction projects..

Council leader Cllr John Clancy commented on the potential that China have to offer, saying “The landscape has inevitably changed post-Brexit and Birmingham is already out of the starting blocks. That’s why I’m here selling our city to many of China’s leading investors.

“This agreement is about bringing good jobs and quality homes to Birmingham. Country Garden have a proven track record of building homes at pace and scale. They have played a major role over the last 20 years, as housebuilders have met the massive demands of China’s rapidly expanding economy.

“Bringing this level of investment and experience to Birmingham would be a massive economic boost to the region’s businesses, skills base and families. It’s about bringing new, big capital spend to the city, quickly. This is about building houses, jobs and futures for young Brummies and families across the region.

“Country Garden understand the demands in Birmingham and are clearly excited at the prospect of investing in our young, growing city.”

Country Garden founder and chairman Mr Yang Guoqiang commented “I have been impressed with Birmingham’s ambition and huge potential and I am delighted to announce this investment commitment to support significant housing and infrastructure development in the city.

“We have a proven track record in delivering quality housing at a scale to match Birmingham’s ambitions and with major projects coming to the city, including the forthcoming High Speed two project, these are exciting times for Country Garden and Birmingham.”

New construction activity has fallen back into contraction, according to figures released today by industry analysts Glenigan.

The value of new projects starting on site was 4% lower than a year earlier during the three months to November. Housing, non-residential and civil engineering starts were all scarcer during the period compared to this time last year.

The amount of new commercial and industrial work was flat on a year earlier during the latest period. Growth in the industrial and hotel and leisure sectors offset falling starts of both office and retail schemes.

Commenting on this month’s figures, Allan Wilén, Glenigan’s Economics Director, said: “The latest evidence on commercial construction starts is disappointing given the continued strength of the economic backdrop.”

“However the forward pipeline is much more positive. In the office sector, for example, the value of work achieving planning approval has risen by more than 50% during the last three months.”

Less surprisingly, the public sector is continuing to hold back growth. The value of the health sector is forecast to fall by a quarter during the course of 2015 alone: during the latest three months starts were almost 50% down on a year earlier. The education sector is also in decline. Despite schools funding overall being ring-fenced, government capital programmes do not seem to be making a huge impact on the ground.

Private housing activity grew modestly, up 2% on a year ago. This rise was more than offset by the drag from the social housing sector, where starts were 9% down on a year ago. The sector is bracing itself for three years of reductions in rents. Plans for increased support of housebuilding have been aimed squarely at increasing home ownership, bringing little relief for the rented accommodation model championed by Housing Associations.

According to Mr Wilén: “The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement pledges on housing appear to be a further boon to the private housing sector. In the short term, activity may undergo a pause as developers assess how best to reap the potential rewards.”

The civil engineering sector also saw an 8% annual decline in starts, as growth in utilities work was unable to offset contracting infrastructure starts.

Most parts of the UK have been dragged backwards by weakening commercial and public sector construction. Northern England and the Midlands have led growth through 2015. However only West Midlands and the North East have stayed in the black; the North West, Yorkshire and the Humber and the East Midlands have all moved into decline in the latest figures.

London and the South East, by contrast, have returned to growth after being hit especially hard by an election hiatus and the slowing in the housing market earlier this year.

No such change in fortunes for the UK’s other constituent nations: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all failed to record growth since March 2015.

In the wake of today’s statement, the industry is currently abuzz with chatter about whether Osborne’s plans will affect the housing sectors for better or worse. Here is what some of the big names in housing are saying regarding the latest spending review.

Skills shortage threatens 400,000 home target

The construction skills shortage could scupper the Chancellor’s vision for 400,000 new affordable homes, warns the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) in response to today’s announcements in the Spending Review.

Brian Berry, Chief Executive of the FMB, said “Faced with some difficult decisions regarding public spending cuts, today the Chancellor was right to ‘choose housing’ by prioritising investment in new affordable homes. The Government has confirmed plans to build 200,000 starter homes with 20% discounts for under-40s, 135,000 shared ownership homes, 10,000 rent-to-buy homes and 8,000 specialist properties for the elderly and disabled. This amounts to a £7bn public investment in new homes – a concerted effort to give aspirational home owners a helping hand onto the housing ladder.”

“Nevertheless, ‘George the Builder’ will need a new generation of ‘real’ builders to make his vision for housing a reality. We’re already seeing housing developments starting to stall because the cost of hiring skilled tradespeople is threatening to make some sites simply unviable. Unless we see a massive uplift in apprenticeship training in our industry, there won’t be enough pairs of hands to deliver more housing on this scale. That’s why we’re keen for the Government to tread carefully when applying the new proposed Apprenticeship Levy to the construction industry.”

“The Chancellor clearly recognises that the crisis of home ownership is inextricably linked to a crisis in house building. We therefore hope that in order to address both, the Government will do everything it can to increase house building capacity. SME developers will have an important role to play in delivering the smaller scale sites across the country. The last time we built in excess of 200,000 homes in one year was in the late 1980s when two-thirds of all homes were built by small developers. SME house builders now only build little over one quarter of all new homes which points to another serious capacity issue – we need more small house builders to enter the market and also for SME house builders to crank up their delivery of new homes in order to build the Chancellors 400,000 new affordable homes.”

Planning reform is needed

Greg Hill, Strategy and Change Management Director at Hill, said “Extra funding for starter homes is great news for prospective homebuyers, and will undoubtedly help to get more first time buyers and young families on to the housing ladder. Shared ownership properties too are a great way for young people to buy a home without a large deposit. It is certainly the case that the size of deposit required to buy a home acts as a major barrier to first time buyers entering the housing market and these initiatives will go some way to addressing the problem.”

“However, it still remains that a crucial issue over the coming years will be whether the UK housing industry is structurally able to supply the volume of homes needed to meet government targets. Planning reform, as well as greater investment in skills and training for careers in construction, are essential if the industry is to deliver the extra homes in the timeframes that Britain needs. We have a rapidly ageing workforce, with many tradesmen and skilled professionals due to retire in the next few years – the industry may struggle to deliver these 400,000 new homes if the gap in capacity is not filled.”

“If the industry is to build more homes, we also need to ensure that council planning departments have enough resources to make quick decisions on planning applications. The budget cuts that have also been announced today as part of the spending review could have an impact on local authorities’ ability to make decisions quickly.”

Lack of confidence in conservatives

Steve Sanham, development director at HUB Residential, said “With the government promising to subsidise homeownership for the masses, the Chancellor has effectively admitted that it can’t get the housing market under control. It appears that the housing policies of the past few decades have been an utter failure.”

“The problem hasn’t been a lack of ‘affordable housing’, rather a lack of affordability in general. Investment in infrastructure to bring new areas on line for development, and freeing up the bureaucracy of the planning system, are the only ways to bring ‘market homes’ within the reach of first time buyers. New headline grabbing affordable housing initiatives smack of more short-termism, and an inability or unwillingness of the government to grasp the big issues.”

‘Crisis Brewing For Social Housing’

Matthew Hyam, partner at BLM said “While targeting housing benefit directly might drive down the welfare bill in the short term, it will inevitably intensify the problems facing social landlords in building new affordable homes.”

“Although the Chancellor has made a huge £7bn commitment to affordable housing in this Statement, the impact of cuts on the social sector has already been immense. In the face of further financial difficulties, there will inevitably need to be a clearer focus on tenant support and arrears enforcement in order to ensure financial viability.”

“The social housing sector has been learning to cope with the effects of welfare reform for some time now and, with the dust barely settled on rent reductions and universal credit, social housing providers are in a more precarious position than ever.”

Positivity on housebuilding

Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation said “The Government is clearly committed to increasing both housing supply and home ownership. Measures introduced in recent years have led to a big increase in house building levels but the scale of the challenge requires further action to close the gap between demand and supply. The Chancellor’s announcements today will provide extra impetus to deliver further increases in housing supply.”

Peter Quinn, Lovell director of business development said “We welcome any stimulus that will increase the supply of housing in this country. There are many parts of the country where we see great housing need and these measures will undoubtedly assist people onto the housing ladder, ‘Starter Homes’ will especially help the firs- time buyers wanting to purchase a Lovell home. However, we remain concerned that even this initiative will remain out of reach for those that cannot afford home ownership, and we need to continue to develop affordable rented housing especially in high value areas.”

Greg Hill, Strategy and Change Management Director at Hill, said “Extra funding for starter homes is great news for prospective homebuyers, and will undoubtedly help to get more first time buyers and young families on to the housing ladder. Shared ownership properties too are a great way for young people to buy a home without a large deposit. It is certainly the case that the size of deposit required to buy a home acts as a major barrier to first time buyers entering the housing market and these initiatives will go some way to addressing the problem.”

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The latest ONS figures, released this week, highlighted a decline in construction activity during Q3. Output in the construction industry was 2.2% lower than in Q2 and 0.1% lower than a year ago, and was 4.3% lower than the pre-recession peak.

Dr Noble Francis, Economics Director at the Construction Products Association, put the data into context: “The fall in construction output in Q3, compared to a year ago, was the first annual fall since 2013 Q1. Skills shortages have been a key issue recently in the industry and are hindering growth, especially in house building. Where skilled labour is available, wage inflation has also been a serious issue, hindering the viability of many sites.

“In the private commercial sector, the largest construction sector, there are still many projects in the pipeline due to contracts that were signed 18-24 months ago. However, sharp rises in costs since then, due to a lack of skilled labour, have adversely affected margins and meant that many projects are on hold for the moment whilst contractors go back to clients and renegotiate prices.”

“Overall, recovery is never a straight line and there are always a few bumps and scrapes along the way. Projects in the pipeline across most construction sectors suggest that activity in the industry will rise in 2016 and our forecasts anticipate 4.2% growth in total construction next year, driven by recovery in house building, commercial and infrastructure activity. Skills shortages, however, are proving to be a key issue constraining growth for the industry.”

Chancellor George Osborne announced today that there are “unprecedented opportunities” for China to play their part in funding the development of a Northern Powerhouse.

The Chancellor revealed a selection of opportunities for investments worth up to £24bn at an event being held at the city of Chengdu in China. Coined the “Northern Pitchbook,” Osborne presented a series of regeneration and infrastructure investment projects to senior investors.

Some of the projects included in the Northern Pitchbook are:

  • Opening up the bidding process to build HS2 to Chinese firms and investors on Thursday, offering contracts worth £11.8bn to build the high-speed rail line.
  • Manchester Place regeneration, which consists of creating three new areas of more than 10,000 homes with a combined value of over £3bn.
  • Sheffield Retail Quarter will look to provide new homes within the city centre and also centrally located offices.
  • South Bank regeneration, which will cover over 130 hectares within Leeds city centre.

The Chancellor said “As we continue to work more closely with China, we have an unprecedented opportunity to secure significant investment into some of our most ambitious projects across our Northern Powerhouse.

“From Liverpool to Newcastle, we are opening up our doors to investment that will not only help us to grow and create jobs, but will allow us to build infrastructure to rival any region in the world.

“The North of England is already a magnet for foreign investment into the country and we’ve seen with announcements from Nissan and Hitachi into the North East recently highlighting how perfectly poised our Northern Powerhouse is to attract the eye of global companies.”

Encouraging the Chinese and British firms to work together in joint tender bids for HS2 phase one is a stark contrast to the wishes of opposing Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has vowed to renationalise the railways if he becomes Prime Minister.

Mr Corbyn said last week “We know there is overwhelming support from the British people for a People’s Railway, better and more efficient services, proper integration and fairer fares.”

“On this issue, it won’t work to have a nearly but not quite position. Labour will commit to a clear plan for a fully integrated railway in public ownership”