Our initial statement after the Autumn Statement focussed on housing growth and skills. It must be no surprise that these jumped out as the top priorities, they are the stark realities of life in 2015. We have both a housing and skills crisis in the UK – it is impossible to miss, it impacts on us all and is felt by most of us in our day-to-day lives.
On skills, we still fear that the term apprentice is being distorted and the funding diluted in the confusion. There is so much uncertainty around the levy and this can't be good when the inherent nature of the skills crisis needs long term thinking.
Everybody has a right to a home, we don’t have enough – successive policy makers have tinkered with the deckchairs whilst the ship is going down, but we still aren’t building enough. I sincerely hope that the announcements this week will add impetus. Whilst I live in hope, I can’t help think that we are trying to find the answer in financial nuance – shifting things around on a balance sheet, making funds available and offering financial incentive. Sometimes we overlook the obvious, maybe the answer is simpler, just maybe it is to be found on the building site rather than the balance sheet. What would happen if we stopped filtering the money through financial institutions and invested it directly in building a new foundation for the economy, invested directly in building state owned housing? What if we used this investment to set out our stool as a leading 21st century economy and prioritised sustainability, supported a move to offsite manufacturing, encouraging investment to drive efficiency in our house-building industry and put clear targets in place to ensure that those delivering the houses hit exacting energy efficiency targets rather than a perpetrating a focus on short term gain and sweating thin margins.
I often hear talk of the Olympics as an exemplar project. This is a glimpse of what is possible when constructing the built environment. Why was it different? It was client led, it was unconstrained by conventional thinking and driven by a vision of transcending the past. The Olympic legacy meant we finally had a good client, one who looked beyond the initial capital cost and recognised the need to consider the impact of the building for future generations. A good client could, just could fundamentally change the culture and future of building in the UK.
This is perhaps a pipe dream, especially so when we consider the attitude to sustainability that this government is showing. This was the Budget that saw the Energy Company Obligation slashed, seriously denting investment in improving housing stock. Once again we have kicked sustainability into the long grass – despite all conventional wisdom and historic rhetoric telling us to fix the roof whilst the sun is shining!
Possibly even more concerning environmentally is that energy-intensive industries like steel and chemicals factories will be "permanently exempt" from the cost of environmental tariffs. This will help to keep their bills down, keep them competitive and keep them here, but at what long term environmental cost – at the same time why are we not looking to incentivise use of more sustainable alternatives.
But, there is a glimmer of hope. Earlier this month we were told that when buying steel (for projects greater than £10 million) government projects must take into account embodied carbon and whole life cost. Whilst this is a bit of a ruse, using sustainability to help incentivise the UK steel manufacturing sector, you won’t hear me complaining. Indeed using positive means to prioritise the procurement of locally sourced and more sustainable options is exactly what we should be doing. We need to do more of it. Think of the possibilities.
This announcement to scrap carbon tax for energy intensive industries is effectively an admission that taxing consumption is not working – so let’s stop it altogether and look at this concept of positive recognition, a carrot over stick approach. Monitoring and recognising embodied carbon on all new build and significant refurb projects positive decisions focussed on natural capital, resource efficiency and whole life costing. The UK construction industry is blighted by inherent inefficiencies and an image crisis that holds us back, changing behaviour and creating guiding principles around sustainable, long-term thinking may be just the change we need to be reborn as a truly world class industry.
Why not take it further, why not reward households that use less energy than the average, a rebate or a voucher – would not rewarding positive behaviour be more likely to lead the cultural change that is needed? With the Paris Climate Change Conference this week likely to bring new responsibilities, one thing is clear, we need to look to balance the fiscal and sustainability targets or short term gain will lead to long term pain.
Iain McIlwee, BWF CEO
As a benefit of BWF's membership of the Construction Products Association (CPA), logged-in members are able to view a summary of the Autumn Statement and the Comprehensive Spending Review within the CPA Weekly Notes special edition.
View the BWF Manifesto here and see how we believe a focus on skills, UK manufacturing and recognising the sustainability of timber will ensure that the UK woodworking sector can deliver growth and jobs and help meet carbon reduction targets.