London’s construction skills shortage makes innovation more urgent than ever

Modular housing in Los Angeles. Image: Getty.

London’s construction industry is struggling to attract and retain the workers it needs. And this is a huge problem: skills shortages are driving up the high cost of building in the capital, and contributing to the poor quality of workmanship in the construction sector.

This crisis is manifold. The UK’s construction workforce ageing, with one in ten workers estimated to leave the sector in the next nine years. It’s also at huge risk from Brexit, with almost a third of London’s ‘construction of buildings’ workforce from the EU, compared to just 10 per cent in the rest of the UK. Last week, the Migration Advisory Committee’s report on EEA workers recommended a salary threshold of £30,000 for high and medium skilled EEA workers in the future, with no explicit work migration route for low-skilled workers, and no introduction of regional variation.

But it’s not just the prospect of losing EU workers that the industry needs to be concerned about: more workers are leaving the profession than entering already. In 2017 alone, twice as many workers left the construction industry as joined it, a trend projected to worsen over the next few years. This is despite demand for on-site occupations outstripping levels of current employment: recent findings from the Greater London Authority indicate that demand for plant mechanics, scaffolders and bricklayers exceeded 300 per cent of 2015 employment levels.

Meanwhile, despite the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy in April 2017, London has a consistently low number of construction apprenticeship starts, with take-up declining by almost 50 per cent in the five years to 2016, even as need has intensified. A recent survey of apprenticeship leavers by the Construction Industry Training Board found that over a third cited low pay and slow career development as reasons behind leaving.

So how can the construction sector inspire its current workforce, but also encourage the next generation of workers to come forward? With the construction industry in desperate need of a pipeline of younger and skilled employees, it’s time for the sector to embrace Modern Methods of Construction (MMC).


MMC, also known as modular housing or off-site construction, have the potential to deliver housing much quicker than traditional construction methods, as well as provide cost savings, greater certainty and achieve higher quality. Modular techniques will create jobs for a range of skills, engineers and surveyors as well as low skilled jobs on-site. This might entice would-be apprentices who could be put off by low pay and a lack of personal development opportunities.

But the transition to widespread adoption of off-site construction to date has been slow. A step change in developing the skills to take it on will be needed to ensure MMC can be a part of the solution to London’s housing crisis.

London mayor Sadiq Khan has demonstrated his commitment to improve skills in the sector through the Mayor’s Construction Academy (MCA), which includes supporting the development of training provision for the construction of precision manufactured housing. Taking this forward, the mayor should consider how to use devolved skills funding to help existing construction workers develop the new skills required to implement MMC. Now is the time for developers and the wider industry to start investing their workers, upskilling them to future-proof housebuilding in the city.

Amy Leppanen is communications officer at the Centre for London.

 
 
 
 

Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.