How do we shift these cows on the line?

The 2023 BMBI debate lived up to expectations, says Mike Rigby of MRA Research. The industry faces many key challenges in the next decade. We can manage some ourselves, but others are hefty cows on the line that need shifting if we’re to meet expectations and hit the UK’s critical targets. 

The recent BMBI debate covered climate change, skills and capacity, digitalising to modernise the industry, modern methods of construction, and building safety.

It quickly became clear that we can solve some industry challenges ourselves – skills shortages, digitalisation, for example – even if progress has been disappointing. Meeting other challenges depends on political parties and Government becoming part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

What can we do? We can join together and use our muscle, says BMF’s CEO John Newcomb: “Construction is 9% of GDP and employs 3m people.” The BMF is leading a campaign to sell the industry and apprenticeships to Generation Z and attract women and all communities. Individual firms can then sell their sector and themselves. Invite students into our interesting factories and operations, and pitch the opportunities!

We can commit to digitalisation. We are light years behind where we should be, but “it’s one of the few moves that has value all the way through the supply chain,” says Chris Fisher, ECI Software Solutions. “Everybody benefits from data being consistent and comparable.” Suppliers, merchants and their customers spend massive amounts of time and money on unnecessary activities. If the whole industry worked around a barcode, it would unlock that waste.

What can’t we do? We can’t build 300,000 houses a year, let alone 400,000, however desperately we need them, even if someone waves a play-nicely wand over NIMBYs and planners. Government’s targets are plucked from the air and detached from reality. Without modern methods of construction, the industry is unable to build more than 170,000-200,00 a year. We don’t have the capacity to make enough cement, insulation, bricks, blocks and other building materials and components. And no one is going to double their capacity on the whim of a Government that changes its Ministers in a revolving door at the rate of one a year over the last 20 years – and changes its policies almost as often. If you’re going to invest £200m-£500m in a new insulation or cement plant, you need to be confident Government doesn’t reverse it’s policy in 18 months time!

Nor have we the skilled people to build twice as many homes. Yes, we can attract the right number and mix of people into the industry, but that will take time and consistency of effort.

So we have a massive communications and education challenge to educate Government and our political parties. They got the message during Covid that construction drives economic growth, but a few Ministerial reshuffles later and they’ve forgotten everything, and we have to start again.

Our biggest challenge? How do we get cross-party commitment to a 25 year plan to tackle Britain’s most important challenges?

This article was first published in Builders Merchants News magazine.