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Construction National blog: 10/04/2012

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Following on the heels of the Budget came the much-heralded National Planning Policy Framework, or NPPF: THE hot topic among construction news stories.

It had been flagged in the Budget, before which it had been attacked by an ‘unholy alliance’ of The National Trust and Friends of the Earth for its proposed presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’ and its (later amended) failure to favour brownfield development.

In the ends nobody was happy, which state of affairs on another subject His Honour Lord Jackson stated could mean it was broadly right. In essence those who favour lots of development welcomed the new framework, although they think that there is still too much restriction; those who don’t, didn’t. They think there is far too little restriction, meaning the entire countryside is on the brink of being dug up and built on.

One area that will almost certainly see a fall in applications is the building of extensions to listed properties. This magazine’s sister publication, Ecclesiastical and Heritage World, will be examining in some depth what the introduction of VAT will mean to the sector. What no-one disagrees with, however, is that a 50-page framework for making planning decisions is better than 3,000 pages.

One of the ‘in’ terms in construction news circles is building information management – BIM. It even has its own trade show. As acronyms go it’s certainly one if the least inspiring; which is a shame, as the development of integrated IT systems covering the entire build process is crucial to a modern construction industry.

In the words of an article published last November in the paper edition of Construction National, BIM is more than just 3D CAD. To find out more go to BIM Show Live at the Business Design Centre in London on 9-10 May.

On a less-than-encouraging note, the HSE has reported that one fifth of sites visited in a national construction site safety initiative failed the safety check. What is even more alarming is that the figure showed “a slight improvement”! Falls from height are a major cause of death or injury in what is one of the country’s most dangerous industries (celebrity ice dancing does not count) and for 20% of companies not to taking the issue seriously enough is a scandal.

One safety issue that has been clarified concerns non-licensed work with asbestos. The changes are in response to an EC view that the UK had not fully implemented the EU Directive on working with the substance. The changes are minor and do not mean a mass exodus of consultants from the Construction Directory on this site.

Chris Stokes

Construction National blog: 26/03/2012

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It had to happen! For years we have been insulating our homes into hermetically-sealed capsules in the search for more and more energy efficiency. The inevitable result when you introduce breathing beings into this capsule – particularly if you then heat it – is condensation. Now the Property Care Association (PCA) has issued a ‘White Paper’ on the increasing problem of condensation, making exactly that point.

The author of the document, PCA general manager Stephen Hodgson, said in a statement: "The Green Deal is fast approaching and within the year hundreds, and then thousands, of property owners will be able to release funds to undertake insulation and fuel saving improvements, which will be paid back from projected savings in their gas and electricity bills.

"However, with this in mind, the PCA is becoming increasingly concerned that some insulation treatments are being carried out with little or no attention to the wider implications or consequences of such treatments. This is particularly relevant in relation to ventilation, air movement and condensation."

The issue is one which has become increasingly relevant in my own home, which was built in 1998 to a then-high insulation standard. The bathroom window has to be open ‘on the latch’ every time the heating is on to avoid a small pool under the cistern. In a conversation with my next door neighbour only yesterday, we agreed that opening the living room window was impractical because of the dust and noise (it’s on a main road), so in addition to the small ventilator in the top of the frame, the only option is to have the patio doors open – or pretend it’s a sauna and beat each other with birch twigs, but we won’t go down that road.

Then there was the Budget. Hidden deep among the income tax reduction, the hike in tobacco duty and the ‘is it or isn’t it?’ mansion tax was what the RICS has described as “a missed opportunity” and the Listed Property Owners’ Club an “astonishing, and unexpected, announcement that will affect a significant number of owners of listed properties in the UK”. It was the withdrawal of VAT relief on alterations to listed properties. Not a lot to get steamed up about, you might think – unless you own a listed property.

There are, however, three things to get steamed up about with the measure. Firstly, and this is why Boy George says he did it, the owners of listed properties were getting VAT relief on such things as extensions that everybody else had to pay. Not all listed buildings are of the historic gem variety. In this area many are good examples of weavers’ cottages and the like and are normal family homes. In fact I reckon most people didn’t know you could extend a listed building.

Secondly, and this is where LPOC have expressed legitimate concern, it could deter people from purchasing the kind of listed building I just mentioned, which will then fall into disrepair. Or people may just not carry out repairs.

Thirdly, and this is RICS’s “missed opportunity”, there was the possibility of setting a 5% VAT rate on ALL home repair, maintenance and improvement work.

According to the RICS Budget response: “Research shows that this would have created an extra 26,650 jobs in the construction sector in 2012 and a total economic stimulus of around £1.7bn in 2012 alone. Instead, this will create further barriers to the improvement of housing stock and job creation in the sector.”

Seems like the Chancellor has upset just about everybody. The good news for him, though, is that hardly anybody noticed.

Chris Stokes

Construction National blog: 19/03/2012

blog“The 5% deposit is back!” That’s how one large sign at a housing development trumpeted the latest in a line of Big Ideas to have emanated from Dave’s hip over the past year or so.

The headline referred to the latest scheme to boost new home building by guaranteeing low-interest mortgages – but only for new homes. That is wonderful news for the housebuilding industry, but not so good for the house buyer. Apart from the fact there are already 5% deposit deals already available, which implies that any new, government-backed deals will probably only be via higher risk (and guess who’s going to be taking the risk), it will either fuel a new house-price bubble or grind to a halt as soon as people need to shift existing properties.

Plus, only a very small percentage of home sales are of new build properties. Plus, the deal only applies to England. Plus, not all lenders are taking part. Plus, not all builders are offering properties under the deal. The list is endless.

The BBC website ran a piece explaining the scheme which included a long list of reasons why the scheme is of virtually no use whatsoever to home buyers, and a poll on the Telegraph website was in no doubt: it’s a gimmick that will only benefit builders.

That in itself is not necessarily bad – except that the idea is not for taxpayers to bail out businesses: unless that business is a bank, or an insurance company, or a finance company, or…or…or. The fact remains, however, that it makes no difference what deposit you need – if you can’t afford the mortgage you can’t afford the home.

And Dave’s announcement was successfully sabotaged by the main lenders increasing their rates, despite the base rate remaining at an all-time low of b****r all. As a saver rather than a borrower I see that as personal!

Among other construction news, roadbuilding got the same treatment from the PM on Monday. He managed to upset just about everybody with his ideas for introducing more private-sector finance into the system. The only people in favour were the AA and the RAC: oh, yes, and the roadbuilding industry. In this part of the world there are still a number of Toll Bars and Turnpikes in road names to remind us of what happens when you turn the road system over to a Victorian land grab.

Still, guess who ALWAYS uses the M6 toll when heading south, to avoid the car park that is Birmingham. The cost is probably recouped by savings in fuel alone. So much for principles.

Away from the big issues, this week is Ecobuild, with the Concrete Centre joining in a feature called Cool Concrete. Concrete inspires love and loathing in equal measure, and a special feature in a forthcoming issue of Construction National will showcase all that that most versatile of substances can offer.

Chris Stokes

Construction National blog: 08/03/2012

Construction National blog logoWith the Budget due on 21 March, there seems to be no agreement among the commentators on which direction the construction industry is headed.

A report on the economy for February by financial information services company Markit, in conjunction with the Chartered Institute of Purchase and Supply, was cautious but optimistic for the 12 months ahead, seeing higher levels of optimism than at any time in the past year, citing an “upturn in the construction sector”. In the construction news section of this website it is reported as saying: “All three categories of the construction industry saw growth in February, with commercial increasing at its fastest level since September 2010, while civil and housebuilders returned to growth.”

Other sources are less optimistic. The Construction Products Association looked at the fourth quarter of last year and found it “very poor” for the vast majority of firms in the sector. What was most concerning was that the report found life particularly bad for SMEs. It followed that up with a letter to the Chancellor calling on him to “introduce a range of practical policies that, whilst helping drive growth, will not endanger the government’s desire to achieve its medium term deficit target, but speed the country’s economic recovery”.

Read more: Construction National blog: 08/03/2012

Construction National blog: 16/02/2012

Construction National blog logoNext month sees the bringing together of the two biggest buzzwords in construction in the UK since – well, since ‘Wren’ and ‘Great Fire’. I am, of course, referring to Ecobuild, the showcase of everything there is in sustainable construction. This year the three days will reflect the upcoming London 2012, flagged as the “greenest Olympics ever”. There is a whole seminar and conference programme devoted to the delivery of sustainability in the build programme and the learning legacy. Ecobuild is an Olympics learning legacy partner and as such playing its part by delivering presentations by many of the major players from ODA and LOGOC.

What follows the Games is, of course, crucial to whether London 2012 is seen as a green triumph or a white elephant. On a much smaller scale, much of what was anticipated in Manchester has gone by the board following the banking crisis and change of government. Not only has the stadium become an advert for an Arab airline (one of the first things to go was the running track), the housing regeneration has fallen victim to the cancelling of schemes such as Pathfinder, leaving streets half-demolished and homes sometimes in a worse state than they were to begin with.

Read more: Construction National blog: 16/02/2012