Taken from the September 2014 issue of Housebuilder magazine.
Stephen Byfield, managing director of communications consultancy PPS, reflects on the construction workers making their early morning commute from Cambridge to London
Recent domestic rearrangements (all good, thank you for inquiring) have caused me to pass a significant number of mornings commuting to London from Cambridge. It has been a fascinating process and has given me insight into one of the major issues facing the housebuilding industry at the moment.
If I get the 6.15 or any later train, then I share the commute with people like me: people dressed for the office, half asleep or with noses pushed into their copy of The Times – actually it’s mostly The Guardian on the Cambridge train.
But if I want to be really early and get the 5.45 train, then the carriages are equally full, and packed with a different type of commuter. At this time, I am a rare suit and my travelling companions are wearing safety boots, dressed in jeans and carrying spirit levels – builders heading into town to work on construction sites.
This tells you a lot about the housebuilding business. It’s fascinating that it makes financial sense for the guys working on construction sites to pay £45 a day to make the return journey from Cambridge to London.
I told this story to a senior figure in one of our top housebuilding firms and he explained the difficulties everyone is having finding labour and particularly good trades. Values in London are such that labour costs can expand to draw in the talent from further afield, but this comes at a price – provincial towns within striking distance of London are suffering.
Towns such as Cambridge, where the shortage of people is made worse by the fact that so many of the local labour force is sitting with me on the 5.45. Firms are being forced to raise, and raise again, the wages and incentives to attract good tradesmen.
It is also a fact that the industry would not be on its feet were it not for immigration. I spent an enjoyable half hour talking to an angry man at a recent consultation. He was an archetypal nimby: sixty-ish, well-off, white, and above all very, very angry. “None of our politicians understand,” he said. “None of them get it, none of them, except Nigel.”
“Nigel?” I asked.
“Yes … Nigel Farridge (sic)”, he said.
Just wait until nimbys like him work out that without immigrants we can’t build the houses he detests. Then we are in real trouble.