Constructing an image

They’ve donned hard hats and high-visibility jackets, laced up their toughened boots and even picked up trowels. Our political leaders have been touring building sites, in a sign that the subject of housing is centre stage in the forthcoming General Election.

But for the housebuilding industry, the politicians’ interest is evidence of a real image problem. And one that they are seeking to correct urgently, both as an industry and as companies in their own right.

Steve Turner, director of communications at Home Builders Federation, explains: ‘While we’re not quite in the bankers’ league, over the decades housebuilders have attracted negative campaigns from the antidevelopment lobby. Politicians have pointed to ‘greedy housebuilders’ who create land banks, as a way of deflecting criticism of planning policy.

‘The anti-development camp has pounced on proposed changes and tried to make out that housebuilders are destroying England’s green land. They have shifted the debate from a discussion of where much-needed homes should be sited, to an all-out attack on the industry.’

The industry wants to change that negative image with the general public, who are also its customers. It also needs to influence and work with local authorities and other stakeholders, if it is going to convince councils to grant planning permission. It must also convince Westminster politicians of the need to reform the planning system.

But, perhaps more importantly, the industry – which is only now pulling out of a prolonged and bitter downturn in which as many as 350,000 people left the sector for good – needs to convince young people that construction can provide a challenging and rewarding career path.

Patrick Law, corporate affairs director at Barratt Developments, the UK’s biggest housebuilder, says: ‘We need to improve the reputation of the industry across a range of audiences and as the biggest player in the sector we are at the forefront of that activity.

‘While the quality of what we build and customer satisfaction has never been higher, there is a perception gap between the quality of the product and people’s view of new homes, which the industry is trying to address.’

One of the ways Barratt has tried to influence the conversation is by demonstrating its economic footprint. An infographic that has been circulated to politicians and councillors shows that 52,000 jobs depend, directly and indirectly on Barratt building the 14,838 new homes it completed last year.

The company also supports more than 6,200 sub-contractor companies and 5,819 suppliers.

Like companies in other sectors, construction companies and housebuilders are starting to talk up the amount of tax they have paid. For example, Barratt generated £419 million in tax – in the form of income tax, corporate tax and stamp duty land tax, while it has also made £283 million in contributions to local authorities through Section 106 agreements, which is a levy relating to the increased value of land following planning permissions.

Less than two months before the General Election, the Construction Industry Council, which represents the sector’s professional groups and associations, published a report outlining the economic impact of the sector, with recommendations on how to help the sector spread prosperity throughout the economy.

CIC chairman Tony Burton says: ‘It is vital that government and industry work together to help bring about the growth and prosperity which the UK’s world leading expertise in construction and the built environment can produce.’

There is certainly a trend in the house building and construction industry for advertising the payments individual house builders pay into communities. On a large local site by a reservoir in North London, comprising 107 plots, hoardings by house builder Fairview say that the company is contributing £660,000 to the local community.

Fairview said that besides the money, it will also make a £113,000 payment under the Community Infrastructure Levy. Jim Holliday, sales and marketing director at Fairview New Homes, explains: ‘There is often a perception among the public that new homes are being built without the necessary infrastructure to accompany them. By publicising the contributions we make through Section 106 and other obligations and initiatives, we are sending a strong message that Fairview New Homes is committed to improving the wider community.

‘We have recently begun including this messaging on hoarding and have found this an especially powerful way of conveying the message. People living in the communities where we build can see how the development is having a positive effect on their lives. This is especially important as we understand construction work can inconvenience local residents at times, much as we aim to control this.’

Turner adds: ‘A lot of companies are now advertising the benefits they are bringing to communities on their hoardings. It’s because the localism agenda is so embedded in the planning system. If you want to influence the planners, you need to influence the community.’

To this end, developers are also holding meeting at an early stage with local communities to get their input into what they want to see. How you engage the local community is seen as critical to convincing local politicians that you should have planning permission.

And in this age of corporate social responsibility, housebuilders do not miss a chance to talk up their environmental credentials. Barratt Homes recently signed a three-year partnership agreement with the RSPB, Europe’s biggest nature charity, to help it plan a nature reserve at a large development of 2,500 new homes in Aylesbury. ‘We want to tell people about the number of trees we plant (867,000 trees and shrubs in 2014) and how we are working with organisations like the RSPB to create nature-friendly developments and reduce our environmental impact,’ Law says.

Outside the housebuilding sector, commercial construction – of office blocks, schools, roads, tunnels – also has image problems. One of the biggest of these is how do you recruit the brightest and best graduates and technical people to an industry that is known for boom and bust.

Construction generally is still seen by many as a career choice of last resort: one for the less academically gifted or for those with few prospects. The industry is determined that this perception must change.

‘If we are going to attract enough of the brightest and ambitious young people, portraying a positive image of our industry to them, their teachers and their parents, one which they see as progressive, and in which they can develop and prosper, is essential,’ Turner says.

Andrew Link, chief operating officer of the Construction Industry Council, says that one of the biggest problems the industry has to overcome is that it is so big – employing three million people – but so fragmented. ‘We have the star architects and engineers who work on the blue ribbon projects like Crossrail and the Olympics, right through to the local builder who does extensions in someone’s home. It’s very difficult for us to influence that end of the industry, although it has a huge impact on people’s perception of the business.’

One of the Construction Industry Training Board’s big concerns is skill shortages, which have been exacerbated by the start-stop pipeline of public infrastructure projects, since the financial crisis. ‘We just don’t have enough people to do the work that is scheduled over the next few years. Every area from tunneling to bricklaying to roofing has skill shortages,’ Link says.

The CITB calculates that 182,000 new jobs will be created between now and 2019 in the industry. After years of listening to young people’s views of the sector, it believes that it is necessary to persuade children early, before they choose their GCSEs, that a career in construction can be extremely satisfying, highly professional and well paid.

On the first weekend in March major contractors held their third ‘Open Doors’ weekend, which saw 5,000 young people visit construction sites from Crossrail to the Forth Bridge Replacement Crossing in Edinburgh.

Persuading more women to come into the profession is another area the CITB is pushing, and believes that much of the skills gap could be bridged by attracting young women to the sector.

A networking group called ChickswithBricks regularly attracts 200 women, working in ‘the built environment’, and recently hosted Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan, who was emphatic on the need to get more girls into construction.

AECOM, the global civil engineering and design company, which recently undertook a £2.3 billion merger with its rival URS, has also been trying to recruit more women. Last year, the company, which employs about 7,000 people in the UK, circulated a poster across its European, Middle East and African offices showing an aerial picture of Crossrail and the slogan This is women’s work.

Harriet Hindmarsh, head of marketing and communications EMEA at AECOM, says the company wanted to highlight the fact that women were successfully employed on some of the country’s most important construction projects – 29 per cent of the workforce on Crossrail.

Another advertising campaign that has been running in the press and at certain central London Tube stations last year was an attempt to explain the diversity of careers in construction and engineering – and the breadth of AECOM at the same time. The This is… campaign featured striking images, for example a beautiful tree in parkland with the slogan This is a sewer. The strapline to the poster read Using the trees in our streets and parks to capture stormwater. A picture of Derry’s Peace Bridge, which links the largely unionist Waterside with the mostly nationalist Cityside areas, was captioned This is a handshake.

It is no surprise that one of the most successful companies in the sector, commercial property company and developer Canary Wharf Group, is also one that has built its image systematically over decades. Not only has the company transformed 97 acres of once derelict land into some of London’s most sought after retail and office space, it has done so with a concerted campaign to insert itself into the community. Over the years it has created work experience schemes, graduate schemes, schemes to speed-train bricklayers, local procurement schemes as well as hosting many community sports events, arts and cultural events and working closely with local schools and charities.

Canary Wharf – which has its own construction arm – is now regarded as a global example of regeneration around the world, and has an image that the rest of the construction industry would like to emulate.

In the meantime, despite the financial difficulties it still experiences, the sector intends to start making clearer the benefits it brings to communities – jobs, parks, nature reserves, cinemas, schools, sports facilities, to name but a few.

The industry’s hand is also getting stronger: in these financially strained times, it recognises that most councils could not survive without the financial contributions (and contributions in kind) they receive from housebuilders and developers.

The construction sector’s top brass will know they have succeeded in getting their message across when the politicians come to call, not just in the run-up to an election. And when they acknowledge that the industry builds communities, rather than tears the heart out of them.