Look beyond the headline political announcements for policies that will help housing sector’s future, says Bjorn Howard of Aster Group.
Reflecting on Rishi Sunak’s Budget in March and, more recently, the Queen’s opening of parliament, what are the policies that jump out? It could be the increase in taxes on businesses – something that underlines the current plight of the economy. As a housing professional, perhaps you think first of Mr Sunak’s plans to stagger the reintroduction of stamp duty through September, the launch of the government’s First Homes scheme, or the building safety and planning reform mentioned during the Queen’s speech.
But other announcements too have the potential to support the housing sector and its future. Skills, for example, were a prominent feature of both of those political addresses. For Mr Sunak, the focus was on apprenticeships and traineeships. For Her Majesty, getting those left jobless by the pandemic back onto the career ladder was a central agenda point.
Looking at apprenticeships first, the chancellor said the government will pay businesses £3,000 for any new apprenticeship created between 1 April and 30 September 2021. This increase from £2,000 (for those aged 16 to 24) and £1,500 (25 and over) provides a timely incentive for firms to invest in new talent.
Secondly, Mr Sunak promised to support businesses that create traineeships, with £126million set aside along with a commitment to continue to pay companies £1,000 per trainee.
And thirdly, the Queen’s speech highlighted the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, which will receive £95million in government funding over the next year and offer UK adults access to almost 400 employer-friendly qualifications for free.
Taken together the proposals are important. While the sums involved may not be huge, the policies should encourage firms to invest in people, and, crucially, give two economically vulnerable groups – those who lost a job, and those looking for their first – a real chance at a fulfilling career.
It is these skills-focused policies, just as much as the specifically housing-related ones, that I believe pose the greatest long-term opportunity for our sector.
So how do we seize that opportunity?
As a housing sector, we love to talk literally and figuratively about the importance of foundations – without solid ones no house is built to last. It’s the same principle with our workforce in that we must continually invest to protect our businesses and secure our futures. With unemployment forecast to rise to 7% this year, according to projections from Lloyds Banking Group, Britain’s biggest mortgage lender, housing has an opportunity to provide high quality jobs in every part of the country.
Yet attracting people, and particularly young people, to housing is not as straightforward as it might seem. We need to be mindful that the cultural, learning development and social need for this demographic is different for everyone.
I think there are three steps to improving our record here.
First, we must sell our sector and our individual businesses harder. For people who want their work to have a positive social impact, social housing should be an attractive career path. Housing is a human right and meets the most basic of needs – everyone deserves a home. We all have it in our gift to inspire people by explaining to them why social housing is a force for good, and attract people to the industry who want to make a difference.
In our business we have created The Aster Offer, which is a key part of motivating and attracting talent. It recognises that one size does not fit all and colleagues at different stages of their career will want and need different things. So alongside traditional areas, like reward and benefits, it also incorporates other aspects of our careers, such as commitments to development and wellbeing.
The second step is investing in people. In their purest form, apprenticeships and traineeships are investments by businesses hoping for a long-term pay-off in the form of engaged employees. Over the years, we have taken on apprentices in a range of jobs from front-line trade roles to back-office and customer service apprenticeships.
Finally, we must reward people for the huge social impact of their work. We should recognise this with appropriate and competitive rates of pay, of course, but we should ensure our people have access to other elements of reward that make them feel motivated and valued – things like true flexible working and an open and honest culture. By creating this fair and inclusive environment that enables our employees to be happy, healthy, and engaged, we also help ensure that our customers get a great experience too.
There is now a feeling that, with the UK economy beginning to recover from COVID-19, we are at an inflexion point, one that offers us the chance to do things differently, and better. While a clear focus on housing – affordable, social, or otherwise – is welcome, the government’s recent skills and training policies will be just as important to housing over the next few years. But the sector must do a better job of positioning itself as a desirable career path, if it is to make the most of this support and attract and retain the people required to the build for the future.
Bjorn Howard is group chief executive of Aster Group.
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