An ageing UK workforce has been replaced by overseas workers over the years, and Brexit could diminish the country’s chances of building enough new homes.

A survey by the Home Builders Federation (HBF) of around 37,000 building site workers across Britain has found that 17.7% are from the EU, while in London, more than half of the workers are from overseas.

Last month’s Budget announced a 300,000-a-year new homes target until the 2020s as a way of alleviating the housing crisis in the country.

In 2016-2017, 200,000 new homes were built, the highest amount since the credit crunch, and the past four years has seen a 74% increase in output. But the HBF believes that this positive trend could be in jeopardy if measures aren’t taken to protect EU builders after Brexit.

Challenging targets

Stewart Baseley, HBF’s executive chairman, said: “The results of this census clearly demonstrate the reliance the industry currently has on non-UK workers. Output is up a massive 74% in recent years but achieving the very challenging targets set by government will require further big increases in workforce capacity.

“While the industry is investing heavily in recruiting and training young people leaving our schools, colleges and universities, continued access to overseas workers is absolutely essential.”

Broken down into skillsets, 15% of bricklayers, 25% of general labourers and around 18% of finishing trades (plasterers, painters and decorators) come from the EU.

In London, EU workers make up more than 70% of carpenters, 63% of demolition and groundworks workers, 61% of general labourers, 54% of finishing workers, 44% of bricklayers and 40% of roofers.

Reduced capacity

The UK-born workforce is ageing, according to HBF, with only half of UK workers aged in their 20s or 30s compared to 70% of overseas workers. Although Hammond has promised more investment in recruitment and training, it would take time to build the workforce up to its current level and there wouldn’t be the capacity to meet demand.

The HBF is now calling on the government to create a special permit system allowing housebuilders to take on workers from abroad after the proposed 2019 Brexit deadline.

Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders, said: “We know we need to step up as an industry and train more home-grown talent but we also have to be realistic about the future. There will continue to be some ongoing need for migrant workers and our post-Brexit migration rules will need to be fit for purpose.”