Help to Buy scheme extended as construction given all clear for gradual return to sites



First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has signalled a return to construction work on sites in Scotland and a 12-month extension to the Help to Buy (Scotland) scheme.

A phased reopening of the lockdown restrictions for the construction sector began on May 29 when site preparation work was permitted as part of early stages of the six-phase restart model developed on behalf of the industry by Construction Scotland. It starts with planning in Phase 0 and gradually progresses through the stages to increasing density/productivity in Phase 5.

In Phase 2, a proportion of staff can now begin to return to sites, becoming familiar with the new ways of working before activity recommended. Work in this phase on ‘non-essential’ sites can only be carried out within physical distancing parameters.

The industry-agreed six-step phased model for the return of the construction sector is:

  • Phase 0: Planning
  • Phase 1: COVID-19 Pre-start Site prep
  • Phase 2: ‘Soft start’ to site works (only where physical distancing can be maintained)
  • Phase 3: Steady state operation (only where physical distancing can be maintained)
  • Phase 4: Steady state operation (where physical distancing can be maintained and/or with PPE use)
  • Phase 5: Increasing density/productivity with experience.

Speaking at her daily press conference yesterday afternoon, this First Minister gave the green light for the sector to move to the next phase of the plan.

Ms Sturgeon said: “I can confirm today that the construction sector will be able to move to the next step of its restart plan, which is something that was always envisaged as part of phase one of our routemap.

“Earlier steps have allowed for health and safety planning followed by preparatory work on construction sites and moving to the next step of the industry plan will now allow workers to return to construction sites gradually while using measures such as social distancing and hand hygiene to ensure that they can do so safely.

“I’m very grateful to the sector and to trade unions for the very responsible approach that they have taken during a very difficult time.

“It is important to be very clear though that we still have a very long way to go before construction will be working at full capacity, but there is no doubt that this a significant step in allowing an important industry to return safely to work.”

Housing minister Kevin Stewart said: “The health and safety of construction workers and the public remains the top priority as we begin to restart the industry.

“In considering the industry’s readiness to move to the next stage, we have taken an evidence-led approach. The sector’s response to this crisis continues to be responsible and measured, and I am satisfied that it is well-placed to progress into this next phase.

“I must reiterate, however, that easing restrictions will not mean returning to how things were before the virus. Physical distancing, hand hygiene, and other critical behaviours will be essential in each area to ensure public and workforce confidence. I am pleased that we are now able to take this significant step in safely returning the industry to work.”

The Scottish Government also confirmed that it is extending its Help to Buy scheme to March 2022.

Under the scheme, which was due to come to an end next March, the government provides up to 15% of the cost of buying a new build home and recovers its share of the funding once the property is sold or when the share is bought out.

Supported by £55 million of funding for 2021/22, the government said the extension will help more than 2,000 households to buy a new build home and also help housebuilders to ensure their economic recovery over the years ahead.

The First Minister added: “In recent years the scheme has helped 17,000 people, more than three quarters of them aged 35 or under, to buy new build homes. It has also, of course, been a valuable support for housebuilders.

“At present, of course, the pandemic means that the scheme is not being used so by confirming that it is being extended we hope that we can ensure that more people who may otherwise have missed out on this scheme are able to move in to new homes in the future and also that we are able to provide a bit more confidence for the construction sector.”

Mr Stewart said: “A strong and growing house-building industry is vital to Scotland’s future economic prosperity – and particularly as we plan our strategic economic recovery from COVID-19. This extension will provide us with the opportunity to reassess future priorities for the market, taking account of economic conditions following the pandemic, as well as providing a helping hand to those seeking to buy their own home.

“Since 2013, the Help to Buy (Scotland) scheme has supported people with the purchase of over 17,000 new build homes and in particular supported young people aged 35 and under. Extending this scheme will help more people to buy a new-build property, particularly those who have suffered lower levels of income and have used up savings due to the impact of COVID-19 in recent months.”

The home building industry has warmly welcomed the First Minister’s announcement, which it said delivers a much-needed boost and provides further confidence for both prospective customers and builders.

Nicola Barclay, chief executive of industry body Homes for Scotland, said: “To get confirmation that home builders can now commence the re-opening of their sites is great news that hasn’t come a moment too soon given the robust safety plans that the industry has developed and put in place.  With pent-up housing demand having increased with every day that has passed, we look forward to finishing off the many homes that are already largely complete and that families are desperate to move into as well as starting to get the new homes that are so desperately needed out of the ground.

“Having the extension of the Help to Buy scheme announced at the same time is also a much required confidence booster for the housing market that will help ensure even more younger Scots can benefit from this hugely successful initiative and realise their aspirations of owning their own home.

“The First Minister paid tribute to the very responsible approach that has been adopted by the industry during the lockdown, and this is a sentiment I wish to echo loudly. Home builders have stepped up to the plate supporting their customers, employees and local communities, and this will continue as we look forward to working closely with government and other stakeholders to rebuild Scotland’s economy.”

The Construction Industry Coronavirus Forum (CICV Forum) said it was pleased that domestic work will be included amongst the scope of construction work now permitted.

CICV Forum chair Alan Wilson, who is also managing director of SELECT, said: “The announcement about a return to work and the inclusion of domestic work in the lockdown easing will be a huge relief to the lots of businesses across the whole sector which provide essential services to homeowners all over Scotland.

“However, as always in construction, safety is the overriding consideration and firms must prepare to carry out work in a wholly changed working environment, which will produce its own new challenges.”

Shortly before the announcement was made, Mr Stewart had responded to a letter from Mr Wilson, confirming that the move to Phase 2 of the construction sector restart plan would include work in domestic properties.

He also stressed that the restart would have to be undertaken with a new set of safe working practices in mind, including physical distancing, face coverings and enhanced hygiene provision, in order to continue to control the virus.

Gordon Nelson, Scotland director of Forum member the Federation of Master Builders, said: “Health and safety, for employees and customers alike, will be critical as we work to bring the construction industry back to some semblance of normality.

“While this is good news, everyone concerned must recognise the importance of continuing to follow the guidance and ensuring that the only job that will be undertaken will be a safe job.”

Fiona Hodgson, chief executive of Forum member the Scottish and Northern Ireland Plumbing Employers’ Federation (SNIPEF), said: “The response from the construction industry across Scotland during this crisis has been impressive, coming together to take positive action for mutual benefit.

“While the announcement is welcome, we are not out of the woods yet and every company and employee involved in getting back to work needs to abide by the new restrictions under which we all must now operate.”

Vaughan Hart, managing director of Scottish Building Federation (SBF), said: “We are delighted the First Minister has approved plans to allow the construction sector to begin a soft start on site from next week. Both individual members and the industry as whole have been working tirelessly with unions, clients and professional bodies to ensure we only reopen sites when we can make it safe to do so. I believe that work has paid off and a number of sites will now be ready to begin work again on Monday.

“I would like to thank our members for the professional way they are working during this difficult time, and we look forward to the construction sector being at the forefront of the economic recovery whilst ensuring we protect our valuable teams on site.”

Housebuilder and construction company, the Cruden Group, said it is gearing up to begin phase two on Monday, June 15. The ‘soft start’ will see Cruden’s workforce return to construction sites where physical distancing can be maintained.

The group, which safely closed down construction activities in line with government advice on March 24, has now carried out phased and controlled pre-start site preparations across its client’s sites and its own housing developments and has prepared a detailed and robust ‘safe return to work’ plan, which encompasses the Site Operating Procedures set out by Construction Scotland in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Preparatory works have included a strong focus on the implementation of physical distancing measures, enhanced hygiene regimes and the testing of new protocols in order to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of employees, sub-contractors and clients. The housebuilder has also produced a “pre-start pack” of documents for employees and partners which includes additional guidance, risk assessments and controls for site working. These new procedures will be applied and constantly monitored in accordance with government and public health guidance.

During the course of this week, Cruden has engaged with Unite, the Scottish Building Federation, Scottish Futures Trust and Construction Scotland to demonstrate examples of best practice on site. Visits have been hosted to inform partners about the newly implemented operating procedures and as part of a consultation to inform the Scottish Government’s industry restart group.

Cruden introduced a range of measures in response to the pandemic, including the closure of all its sales offices, the migration of non-site colleagues to home working and an orderly shutdown of its construction sites. However, core staff have worked remotely during lockdown to maintain contact with existing construction clients, and to progress new site starts for the post lockdown period.

The group’s private housing sales teams have also continued to serve new and existing customers while working from home, making use of online resources, including virtual viewings and digitalised reservation processes.

Kevin Reid, chief executive of the Cruden Group, said: “We welcome the news that we are entering into phase two of the Construction Re-start plan. The health, safety and wellbeing of the public and everyone who works on our sites and in our offices remains our top priority. We have developed and tested new site protocols and we are working closely with our colleagues, sub-contractors and suppliers to rigorously enforce and strictly monitor the new procedures.”

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