European builders have joined bankers on the list of the EU migrants still welcome in post-Brexit Britain, as Conservative minister Sajid Javid declared he would not let new border controls stand in the way of a surge in housebuilding.
The secretary of state for communities and local government said any new immigration system for EU workers such as “work visas” would be designed to ensure that “the building sector has got whatever it needs to reach my ambition” of building 1m homes by 2020.
Mr Javid told the Financial Times that tackling Britain’s housing crisis was his “number one priority”, and that he wanted to shift the focus towards increasing the supply of housing, not just boosting demand.
He will need foreign workers to achieve his targets: nearly 250,000 overseas workers are employed in the construction industry, including more than 30,000 from Poland and nearly 25,000 from Romania.
The London housebuilder Berkeley estimates that around half of its 14,000 subcontractors come from eastern Europe; Barratt, one of Britain’s biggest developers, said that up to 40 per cent of its workforce in London comes from mainland Europe.
Mr Javid, speaking ahead of the Conservative conference in Birmingham, which starts on Sunday, said he could not predict “what the future might look like in terms of work visas and foreign workers” but added that the economy would have access to the skills it needed.
“Wherever we end up, the government is determined to get a good deal for Britain,” he said. “Whether it’s construction or any other sector, we don’t want to make it any more difficult for those industries than it is.”
This month, Philip Hammond said that any post-Brexit controls on free movement would “facilitate the movement of highly skilled people between financial institutions and businesses”.
Amber Rudd, home secretary, said that the idea of work permits for EU workers “certainly has value”, but that no decisions had been taken.
Meanwhile, in an implicit criticism of David Cameron’s government, Mr Javid said that he intended to focus on supply volumes rather than boosting home ownership through demand subsidies.
His remarks echoed those of housing minister Gavin Barwell, who recently signalled that the government was shifting priority away from home ownership in favour of rented housing.
“The starting point for me is about the total supply of housing,” said Mr Javid. “It cannot just be about ownership. It cannot just be helping people with a deposit or helping them with their mortgage, it has to be a much bigger increase in overall volume and it has to be sustainable, it cannot be a sudden burst for one year.”
In another move to boost housebuilding, Mr Javid said he would “be very tough” on English councils that fail to allocate enough land for housing; they must come up with a local plan by early 2017 setting out how they will cope with population growth.
However, some areas — including Tory shires — are set to miss that deadline. Mr Cameron threatened last year to have Westminster intervene by imposing a plan on councils that have made insufficient progress.
More than a quarter of councils have not completed their local plans, according to Whitehall statistics.
“The rules are there to be observed,” Mr Javid told the FT. “Soon we will be at a point where we will be able to judge councils across the board and see if they have met those rules and if they don’t they can expect us to be very tough on them.”
Mr Javid, an ally of former chancellor George Osborne, who backed Remain in the EU referendum, admitted he “did not know what to expect” after Theresa May became prime minister, but he survived the purge of senior figures from the old regime.
The 46-year-old son of a bus driver and former Deutsche Bank executive said he saw the Department of Communities and Local Government as “an economic department”, with a focus on housing and driving regional growth to improve productivity.
He said Mrs May remained committed to regional devolution and denied claims by Mr Osborne that the new prime minister had “wobbled” on her commitment to the Northern Powerhouse project.
Mr Javid said he wanted other regions, including the so-called “Midlands Engine”, based on Birmingham, to acquire powers and take more control over their own affairs when a new generation of city mayors are elected in 2017.
But he said those urban areas such as the north-east that wanted more powers without agreeing to the appointment of a regional mayor would not get it. A mayor was essential for transparency and accountability: “No mayor, no powers.”
Meanwhile, he refused to comment on the Conservative mayoral campaign in London, which saw Mr Cameron try to link the Labour candidate Sadiq Khan with “extremists”. He said he was pleased Mr Khan, another Pakistani bus driver’s son, had reached City Hall.
“I would have liked to see a Conservative in that role,” he said. “But, having said that, it was nice to see Britain as the first country in Europe to have someone from an ethnic minority background in such an important role.”
Get alerts on Conservative Party UK when a new story is published