Despite predictions of UK economic growth in this year’s Autumn Statement, the British Woodworking Federation (BWF) has warned that some of the key areas in helping the joinery industry to grow sustainably were not delivered.
The Statement did include measures to support small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), such as extra bank lending, support for VC-backed funds and better information on finance schemes – changes that were commended by Iain McIlwee, chief executive of the BWF.
“Operating within the constraints of the deficit, the Chancellor managed to deliver some good news for business in this year’s Autumn Statement,” he said. “We wanted to see a review of Business Rates and that is now on the table. We wanted tangible support for investment, so the announcements on capital allowances are welcome. The commitment to better communication to businesses of the funding options available to them also will be useful.”
The reforms to Stamp Duty were also warmly welcomed by the BWF, which has lobbied for years for a stronger, less volatile housing market. However, Mr McIlwee has expressed concern that the government is still “not going far enough to get to grips with the deficit”. He highlighted the lack of detail in the announcements that the government would extend its investment in affordable housing, as well as increase support for new private housing development.
“The UK’s construction sector is a critical driver for growth, but it’s not just about big infrastructure projects,” argued Mr McIlwee. “New housebuilding and the domestic repair, maintenance and improvement market are also vital and our industry represents a large part of that. Joinery and woodworking is the third largest sector of employment in construction with over 5,070 firms turning over an estimated £3.8b. Any new housebuilding initiatives are highly important factors in the economic success and growth of our industry.
“The BWF members feel that policy on housing is still too vague. We were intrigued by Danny Alexander’s comments the day before on direct intervention by government and disappointed that the Chancellor didn't build on them. More positive action is needed – we need ‘government will’ rather than ‘if you don’t we might’.”
The other area of interest to the BWF was the announcement on addressing the skills gap. The Chancellor pledged to abolish national insurance contributions for apprentices under 25, as well as provide improved careers advice for young people and more back-to-work support for older workers to train and re-skill.
Dave Campbell, manager of the Woodworking Industry Training Forum – the training arm of the BWF – worries these steps will not be enough.
“We are deeply concerned about the flow of young people into the construction sector,” he said. “The skills shortage is constraining demand and we wanted to hear some reassurance that tried and tested methods of bringing in new entrants into construction are not going to be compromised by reinventing the wheel to suit other sectors.
“The announcement on the removal of employer national insurance contributions for apprentices will certainly help make a stronger case to take on apprentices. But that’s assuming it is not more than offset by changes proposed through the Richards Review and Vince Cable’s recent announcements on increasing apprentice wage rates. Things are moving in the right direction, but more focus on skills is essential to deliver more sustained growth and prosperity across the country.”
The BWF has confirmed that it will continue to lobby vigorously for the initiatives outlined in its Manifesto.