More house builders set to reopen sites despite union concerns

Persimmon, Redrow, Vistry (Bovis and Linden) and Taylor Wimpey have joined the growing number of major housebuilders set to progressively reopen a number of their construction sites, despite union concerns that houses are being put before people’s health.

The housebuilders had all previously carried out an orderly shutdown of their sites in late March, as the initial UK lockdown took effect.

Now, in response to the UK government’s objective of getting the construction sector back to work, and carrying out their own reviews of guidance provided by the Construction Leadership Council, a growing number of firms are either planning or have already reopened some sites.

Persimmon and Vistry have both started a phased restart to work on site with effect from today (27 April). Taylor Wimpey plan to resume activity on sites in England and Wales from the week commencing 4 May, while Redrow plan to begin reopening a number of sites from the week commencing 11 May with a phased return to construction on 18 May.

David Jenkinson, Persimmon CEO, said: "The UK government has been very clear on the importance of the construction sector to the UK economy and its desire to see activity continue through the current period of crisis, provided appropriate public health measures are adopted. 

"Nothing is more important to us than the health, safety and wellbeing of the public, our colleagues, sub-contractors and suppliers. Having spent the last month developing and testing new site protocols that incorporate the necessary social distancing and protective measures, we believe that we are now able to return to site safely and support the UK's economic recovery from the pandemic." 

Greg Fitzgerald, Vistry chief executive, said: “Health and safety remains our top priority and a huge amount or work has gone into making sure our people can return to work with confidence in safe and well-planned operating procedures. This first step represents a positive move for the group, as well as the wider economy, and the critically important delivery of new homes.”

Peter Redfern, Taylor Wimpey chief executive, said: “We were the first homebuilder to stop construction on sites and close sales centres in the wake of the pandemic and the lockdown restrictions. We took this decision for health and safety reasons, because, whilst construction was deemed a permitted activity by the UK government, we believed that it was essential to be confident that we could modify our working practices to adhere to strict social distancing and this required time and careful planning. We simply were not, and are not, prepared to compromise on health and safety - ever.

“We have worked with partners, and reviewed guidance issued by the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) and advice from the Health and Safety Executive to assess each and every aspect of our site activities and address the changes that need to be made in order to fully comply with the restrictions imposed by social distancing requirements. Having done so, we are now confident that we have a robust set of detailed protocols and revised guidelines which we can operate safely and on a sustainable basis for as long as is necessary.  

“This decision is based on current government guidance and medical advice and, if this was to tighten further, we would conduct a further review. At this stage we do not expect to start work in Scotland, until a return to construction receives the Scottish government’s support.”

A Redrow statement said: “The government has made it clear they would like to see construction sites operating, provided they can do so safely with social distancing measures in place. We are confident that these conditions can be met over the next two weeks and therefore plan to begin reopening a number of our sites. This will include putting robust social distancing protocols and physical measures in place, to ensure the safety of our colleagues and wider communities.” 

However, despite the reassurances, construction union Unite has warned that there are growing fears that building new homes is being put ahead of the health and welfare of construction workers and their families and called for the HSE to ramp up its policing of social distancing measures on sites.  The union is also calling on the house building sector to ignore “watered down CLC guidance with regard to social distancing” and instead work with it to uphold maximum safety protection and keep up to 250,000 workers employed by the industry and their families safe as sites begin to re-open.

Unite national officer Jerry Swain said: “House builders are re-opening their sites based on watered down and frankly dangerous guidance. This is putting the desire to build houses before the health of workers. Given the nature of house building it will be highly challenging to ensure social distancing and strict cleaning regimes on these sites.

“It is imperative that the Health and Safety Executive reverses its decision to not undertake proactive inspections during the pandemic. If the government believes it is safe for construction workers to be at work, then it is safe for sites to be inspected. Unite is prepared to work with any house builder to help ensure that social distancing is maintained and other welfare and cleaning provisions are met to protect the workforce.”

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