Why the HS2 is a Metaphor for Britain’s Ailing Construction Sector

The High Speed 2 rail project has yet again been delayed due to the chief executive of HS2 Ltd stating a lack of funds for completion. With the forecasted cost rising to over £100 billion, Rishi Sunak is reviewing the project which may result in the train not running to Euston until 2038. The rollback of HS2 exacerbates the UK’s poor planning system and failure to address strategic needs, and now concerns are being expressed about how this ongoing issue is contributing to the housing crisis. Clive Holland, broadcaster on Fix Radio – the UK’s only national radio station for builders – discusses the current state of the UK’s planning system and explains what the UK must do to meet homebuilding targets, with a point of view from the trades.

The planning system crisis has been further exacerbated by policy uncertainty created by failed attempts at planning reforms. The Royal Town Planning Institute revealed that three-fifths of town planners told the Institute about the lack of resource in place to deliver the government’s Biodiversity Net Gain policy that comes into effect in November. However, the government has still not published the regulations needed for the system to run, and local authorities are now arguing that they don’t have the in-house expertise necessary to assess applicants’ proposals.

Now, the growing decline of recourse is being noticed nationwide by councillors. A report by the National Planning Barometer concluded that there was a “crisis of resource that sees local authority planning departments unable to deliver the service on which the system relies”. Six in ten of those surveyed said their planning teams lacked the resources to do the most efficient job. Yet, the report illustrates how planning teams had become disappointed by council planning committees voting against their recommendations, claiming a “fundamental difference of opinion” between planners and councillors.

Councillors also thought that slow progress by developers was a reason for not enough houses being built, yet it’s been noticed that most builders could ill-afford to move slowly with their sites and delays could often be attributed to poorly resourced planning departments. Whether it be battling against record material and labour prices, an historically small workforce, regulations that stifle the ability for builders to work, as well as being in the grips of a mental health crisis, the construction industry is facing significant obstacles.

Clive Holland, presenter at Fix Radio – the UK’s only national radio station dedicated to tradespeople – provides his insight on the current state of the construction industry:

“The government target of 300,000 houses to be built per year, even before COVID was extremely unrealistic for a couple of reasons. After Brexit, a lot of our support teams went back to their own countries, we didn’t have enough people in our industry, we’re already short of trades people as it is. Everybody except for emergency services, and the building industry, believe it or not, and trade associated trades, virtually stopped working during COVID, you know, 80% of the population were furloughed, and so on. So it was always going to be a tricky one, to try and get anywhere near that demand of 300,000 houses built.

“Now you’re in a situation where a lot of house builders have mothballed a lot of their sites because they can’t sell them due to rising interest rates. Lots of sites generally around the country would have been flooded with people buying off plan without even looking at the house.”

The latest PMI Survey revealed that builders attributed this decline to higher borrowing costs and a “subdued” outlook for the housing market. Despite the UK avoiding a recession, as confirmed in the most recent Budget, the construction industry is still significantly hampered by a crippling skills deficit and record prices for materials. The latest Construction Skills Network report cites that the UK needs an extra 225,000 workers by 2027 to keep up with construction demand, the equivalent of 45,000 per year. Overwhelming work schedules, material shortages and new directives such as ULEZ have left hundreds of thousands of small businesses – equalling 27% of SMEs in the trade – on the verge of breaking point and collapse, a study from Fix Radio found.