7 November 2018 | Herpreet Kaur Grewal
A further extension to the Brexit transition period would be "hugely unhelpful" to the construction and building services sectors, according to the president of the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).
Tim Hopkinson told the association's 2018 National Conference that "the one thing businesses crave above all else is certainty", and the proposal to extend transition arrangements after the UK leaves the European Union would further delay investment decisions.
He also criticised the prime minister for labelling construction craft occupations as "low skilled" and, therefore, subject to the strictest immigration restraints after Brexit.
"These are crucial skills that will be central to many of our forthcoming projects," said Hopkinson.
"Describing them in this way also sends out the wrong message to young people considering a career in our sector. Top-quality professionals are vital, but we also need excellence in craft skills."
Delegates at the BESA Conference held at London's Park Plaza Hotel Victoria, also heard former Labour cabinet minister Caroline Flint MP (pictured) criticise successive governments for failing to deliver infrastructure projects.
She urged politicians to step back and allow industry to find the solutions to many of the nation's requirements.
The former housing and planning minister added that BESA and its members had a big part to play in British people's quality of life.
Flint said: "You have a unique insight into the built environment and bring architects' visions to life," she said. "You make our buildings function and keep their occupants safe. It is so important that BESA continues to set standards and quality benchmarks."
She added that trade associations like BESA also played an important role in supporting SMEs.
"SMEs are vital to our economy, but you wouldn't believe it from the business voices you hear on the radio and TV," said Flint. "We only hear from the big corporates with the huge PR budgets but BESA is crucial in getting the views of smaller businesses heard."
She also pointed out that British SMEs were owed £586 billion as a result of poor payment practices, which "can't go on".
"The government has rules on late payment, but it is not enforcing them. Major suppliers on public sector projects are getting paid on time, but they are not passing the money down their supply chains. That's a scandal."
Flint, who held cabinet posts under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, said SMEs were also missing out from the new Apprenticeship Levy regime.
She said: "Apprenticeship starts fell by 40 per cent earlier this year. How can a basically good idea like the Apprenticeship Levy fail in this way?"
She added: "I fear that levy-paying companies are being favoured over SMEs and all sorts of training is being badged as 'apprenticeships', but doing nothing to tackle skills shortages."
She said concerns about how Brexit would affect the skills gap should not mask "home-grown" problems.
"Freedom of movement is a worry for your sector, but as a country we have to be honest with ourselves about how we have not focused enough on training the people we need. We should not be relying on other countries to train our people for us," Flint added.
She also attacked the industry's record on diversity. "There are more women getting STEM qualifications, but once in the workplace many leave because the structure and culture have not changed."
Lack of productivity is another home-grown problem, she believes, which requires better and faster investment in infrastructure including mobile broadband all over the country - not just in the big cities. However, she said, successive governments continually repeat the same mistakes.