Regulation of the construction industry is essential for a safer and more productive future, election hopefuls from Scotland’s main political parties told a special digital hustings hosted by the Construction Industry Coronavirus (CICV) Forum.

The importance of skills and training in the industry also won unanimous cross-party agreement from panellists during the exclusive event held online this week.

Support for reform of procurement practices and a review of VAT on domestic repairs were other positive talking points – supporting the Forum’s own manifesto suggestions for ways to improve the industry.

The hustings, held via webinar on Tuesday 27 April, featured five candidates currently facing election to the Scottish Parliament:

  • Carole Ford, Scottish Liberal Democrats
  • Monica Lennon, Scottish Labour
  • Laura Moodie, Scottish Greens
  • Alexander Stewart, Scottish Conservative and Unionist
  • Kevin Stewart, SNP.

Answering questions from senior Forum representatives and members of a selected audience, all panellists agreed that regulation was essential for the future of the construction industry.

Kevin Stewart said: “It should be the aim of all of us to drive up standards and safety and build trust in people doing day to day work. Why is a security guard a regulated professional when a plumber is not?

“We need to have real debate about the regulatory issues, and a consensus about moving forward on regulation. The Grenfell Inquiry highlights the need to have occupations regulated to keep people safe and give public confidence in construction work.”

Ms Ford agreed, saying: “Professional regulation’s primary purpose is to protect the public, maintain high standards and protect qualifications and standards in the sector.

“The cowboys are doing no favours to those who are properly qualified, so we are totally committed to all measures which would support consumers and protect standards and professional qualifications, and totally in support of having a well-regulated, well respected construction industry which has the confidence of the public.”

Also in favour of regulation was Ms Lennon, who said: “It is important that qualified tradespeople are recognised for their experience and their competence, meaning the public will have confidence in who is coming into their homes or workplace.

“It makes sense to give people confidence in their work and that they will work safely and have pride in what they do, so we fully support measures to improve regulation and improve public safety.”

Training and apprenticeships ‘vitally important’

The importance of skills, training and apprenticeships in the sector was another topic on which all panellists were in full agreement.

Alexander Stewart said: “Economic growth is the cornerstone for this recovery, and construction plays a vital role in that. Skills and training apprenticeships are vitally important and we fundamentally believe that there should be more funding put into it.

“We want to bring people back and get more new people into the industry and ensure that women have more opportunity to become more involved. We also want economic growth, which will only come about through investment in training and support mechanisms.”

Ms Lennon concurred: “Jobs are at the top and at the heart of our manifesto and our vision for the next five years is a roadmap to recovery that focuses on skills – up-skilling, re-skilling and how we can support local government to take on apprentices and use a talented workforce in Scotland to retro-fit homes to tackle fuel poverty and create new jobs in construction and manufacturing.”

Procurement ‘a bugbear that needs resolved’

Questions on procurement reform had been raised by several Forum members ahead of the husting – and again, all five panellists were firm in their convictions that change is needed.

Ms Moodie said: “We believe public procurement could be a real growth boost for small, local businesses that are socially and environmentally responsible and we are committed to reforming procurement requirements that could fulfil that.

“We want to make sure Scottish businesses capture more of the supply chain opportunities, especially from the rise in the growing renewable industry and I believe there is a lot of room for improvement in terms of accessibility and use of online procurement tools. We would also like to see more support for small businesses so they can compete on a level playing field with bigger companies in terms of bidding for the work.”

Both Mr Stewarts agreed that public sector procurement should focus on “best value and not cost” – a key part of the manifesto released last month by leading Forum member SELECT.

Ms Lennon added: “Procurement is quite simply a bugbear that needs resolved and there are huge opportunities around local engagement and low carbon innovation. SMEs are the lifeblood of our economy and we will reorientate procurement to make sure it works for businesses in Scotland.”

VAT rules ‘a burden on business’

The Forum’s manifesto proposals to mitigate the imposition of VAT on domestic repairs, innovations, and green energy projects, gained the support of all the candidates.

Ms Moodie said it was a “burden on businesses” when they were trying to expand and develop, while Ms Lennon said any changes would unlock plenty of opportunities.

Ms Ford agreed, adding: “The current VAT system is regressive and holding back demand for vital energy efficiency improvements and retrofits.”

Kevin Stewart was also in agreement, adding that VAT was not a devolved matter but that he wanted it reduced or abolished for refurbishment repairs and regeneration projects.

Homes ‘need to be fit for purpose’

Panellists also responded to one audience member’s point that a recent survey revealed that 52 per cent of homes are not wind and watertight, with £3.8bn spent annually on their repair and maintenance.

Ms Ford replied that in the west of Scotland the factoring issue in tenements needs looked at as well as that of owners’ responsibilities, saying: “The Edinburgh solution has its own problems, but owners and the responsibilities of multi-occupancy properties needs reviewed.”

Kevin Stewart spoke of “educating people” about the importance of properties being wind and watertight and the need to be ambitious in helping more, while namesake Alexander added: “Homes need to be fit for purpose and there is a need to invest in the sector.”

Praise for ‘collective expertise’

Finally, there was one more thing all the panellists agreed upon – the excellent work of the CICV Forum.

The unique collective was formed in early March 2020 in response to the urgent COVID-19 threat and now comprises 29 leading construction trade and professional associations.

Alexander Stewart said: “It’s so important that the Forum is at the table as you have boots on the ground and work closely together to get the plans put into place. All the ideas in the CICV Forum manifesto are very good and we would support you in achieving them.”

Ms Ford agreed, saying: “The level of detail in CICV Forum documents is only possible because of your collective expertise. Working together has generated documentation that is a lot better than if carried out by one organisation.”

Kevin Stewart added: “The Forum has been at forefront of promoting working safely and long may it stay at the table with government. In particular I would like to pay tribute to the construction character Campbell who has been used to promote messaging through your clever use of social media.”

Forum actions include lobbying the Scottish Government to influence policy and push for positive action, as well as providing expert advice on important sector issues including commercial, employment, planning, skills, and health and safety.

Hustings ‘a resounding success’

The hustings format was the brainchild of Gordon Nelson, Scotland Director of the Federation of Master Builders, a key member of the Forum.

He said: “From the feedback we have received from the sector, it was clear that the hustings event was a resounding success and generated a wealth of constructive and thought-provoking answers from our panellists.

“It proved also that construction is very much at the heart of Scotland’s recovery, and that all parties are committed to rebuilding together and investing in a safer and fully skilled industry that will benefit the whole nation.”