Housing target risk amid ‘chronic’ staff shortage

Philip Hogg, Chairman of Homes for Scotland.
Philip Hogg, Chairman of Homes for Scotland.
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Efforts to address Scotland’s housing shortfall are at risk unless a “chronic” shortage of skilled workers can be alleviated, a trade organisation has warned.

The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) Scotland said workloads among small construction firms north of the Border remained in positive territory during the first three months of the year, but flagged a severe lack of carpenters, joiners, plumbers and site managers.

FMB Scotland director Gordon Nelson said: “It’s clear that the Scottish construction sector needs to re-focus its efforts on attracting new entrants – we need to target experienced workers and the next generation of construction apprentices.

“Migrant labour is playing its part in helping the industry to service rising workloads in the short term but if we are to meet the challenge of the housing crisis, we will require a much wider pool of skilled labour.”

Two years ago, Audit Scotland published a report highlighting that the number of households north of the Border was forecast to rise by 500,000 to 2.9 million by 2035, and 21,230 additional homes would be needed each year to cope with demand.

The Scottish Government set a goal in 2007 to raise the rate of new housing supply to 35,000 in a bid to improve affordability – a target that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon described at the time as “ambitious but achievable”. However, recent official figures show that just 15,436 homes were built in the year to September 2014 – some 40 per cent below the levels seen a decade earlier.

Sturgeon said yesterday that the SNP wants the UK government to introduce a new target to build 100,000 affordable homes a year.

Philip Hogg, chief executive of industry body Homes for Scotland, said: “Lack of skilled labour is an issue which affects all home builders, regardless of size, and is an area we have been actively working on for some time through our ‘Get into Home Building’ initiative with The Prince’s Trust.”

The five-week pre-apprenticeship programme, funded by the Construction Industry Training Board, was launched in partnership with Edinburgh College last year with the aim of helping unemployed people aged between 16 and 25 gain experience in a range of trades including carpentry, plastering, brickwork and painting and decorating.

Hogg added: “The main issues our SME members are raising surround the planning system and access to development finance. It is therefore clear that many barriers require to be overcome if housing production is to increase from the 1947 level it currently sits at.

“Whether you are talking about housing for social or private rent or sale, the fundamental fact is that we need a lot more housing of all types to meet the country’s diverse needs.”

Last month, the Bank of England said that skilled labour “remained scarce” across the UK construction sector, and the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show output during February was 1.3 per cent lower than a year ago, reflecting a decline in repair and maintenance work.

The shortage of trained workers is leading to upward pressure on wages, the Bank said in its most recent summary of business conditions, compiled following discussions with 700 firms. In the report, the Bank said overall construction output remained robust but “continuing supply constraints, notably of labour, were expected to moderate future growth”.

Nelson said yesterday that FMB Scotland wanted the Scottish Government and Skills Development Scotland to help to meet the demand for skilled labour by “engaging more with the construction industry in attracting new apprentices”.

He added: “Only then will we begin to close the skills gap.”