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25 November 2002updated 24 Sep 2015 12:16pm

Why you can’t find a plumber

Forget the chatter about graduates: worry about a shortage of people to build and repair houses

By Jeff Howell

If you thought dumbing-down was a problem only with A-levels and university degrees, then you should see what’s happening further down the food chain. Plumbing, plastering, bricklaying – and other construction skills that used to be acquired over years of apprenticeship and improvement – have been reduced to the level of one-term evening classes.

The UK construction industry is using plumbers who can join pipes only if they have push-fit plastic connectors, plasterers who are limited to skimming plasterboard with a thin smear of “multi-finish” (add water and stir), and carpenters who have never been taught how to sharpen a handsaw (turn off the electric power and they couldn’t even cut their fingernails). The once-noble art of bricklaying has been reduced to building single-skin brick veneers around timber-framed boxes, to fool home-buyers into thinking that they are real bricks-and-mortar houses.

Should we care? I should say so. Britain has the second-highest proportion of owner-occupiers in Europe (after Spain), but the least trained and worst regulated building industry.

If you want somewhere decent to live in Britain, you have to buy it. But while the estate agents and mortgage lenders will be quick to tell you how much you can borrow as a multiple of your income, they never point out that when you buy a house, you become a de facto property manager, and that you will need to spend between 1 and 5 per cent of the market value of the place every year to keep it in good order. This wouldn’t be a problem if we had a properly regulated building industry, able to supply enough trained and experienced tradesmen to keep our houses in good order. But we don’t.

The skills shortage has reached such depths that some reputable local builders are already taking bookings for 2004, and desperate householders are having work done by people who call them-selves builders but who are actually just ordinary blokes. (Whereas you are not allowed to call yourself a doctor, solicitor or architect unless you actually are one, anyone can call himself a builder. Friday night stacking shelves at Tesco’s; Monday morning building someone’s loft conversion. No checks, no regulation.)

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Successive governments have fought shy of regulating the building industry, partly because of pressure from the developers and large contractors who construct new buildings, and who fear that regulation would involve them in the extra expense of training, improved working conditions and health and safety precautions. Developers and contractors would much prefer new buildings to be prefabricated by robots and bolted together on site by semi-skilled labour, thus taking the expense and industrial muscle of skilled tradesmen out of the equation.

However, on average less than half of construction work involves new buildings. The bulk is in the “domestic repair and maintenance” sector – ie, building work on people’s homes – and the knock-on effect of the lack of training means there are very few builders around familiar with the correct techniques and materials to repair, say, pre-1914 terraced houses (which still account for some 30 per cent of the housing stock). So we have the common problems of old houses being replastered with modern gypsum plaster (which draws moisture out from the walls, and then dissolves), and repointed with modern cement-and-sand mortar (which stops old walls moving and breathing, and hastens their decay). Cement pointing alone has probably destroyed more Victorian brickwork than the Luftwaffe.

Meanwhile, the government insists that we need a “knowledge-based economy”. But what sort of knowledge can they possibly have in mind? Certainly not the sort that enables people to build things or repair them. They seem to take it for granted that all those dirty-hands jobs which working-class people do will somehow take care of themselves, and that there will always be plenty of tradesmen around to fix our leaky roofs and repair our central heating. Well, they are wrong.

The government’s own figures estimate that 400,000 new building workers will need to be trained over the next five years, simply to maintain the status quo. That’s 80,000 per year. And how many building apprentices signed up this year? Er . . . just 2,500. The plumbing industry alone needs 22,000 new recruits over that period, and is currently attracting only 800 a year. If this kind of recruitment crisis threatened the health service, or the armed forces, then questions would be asked and something would be done. But since it’s only building – whose popular image is of a bunch of tattooed Sun readers drinking tea or shouting at women from white vans – the philosophy seems to be that there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

So the government continues to insist that 50 per cent of young people must go to university, hence transmitting the subliminal message that anyone who doesn’t must be a bit of an idiot. And then they doubtless complain to each other in the Commons tearoom about how difficult it is to find a builder these days.

Where I live, in the East End of London, it is now easier to hire a hit man than it is to get hold of a decent plumber. And I recently noticed an advert in the Daily Mirror – under the title “Crafts of Olde England” – for a mantlepiece model of a carpenter. “Capturing one of the most ancient and skilled crafts,” it read, “the Carpenter has been beautifully sculptured and cast in fine English Pewter.” So that’s it. Carpenters are almost extinct. You can buy a model of one, but you’ll be lucky to see the real thing.

Jeff Howell is a bricklayer, and building columnist for the Sunday Telegraph