A forum designed for regional and bespoke housebuilders that has the ear of policy makers and more? Sounds good to us. What is the story behind the ‘R&B’ Builders Forum?
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. So it was that the Covid lockdown of 2020 brought about some smart new ideas in how we work and communicate.
Not least of these was the creation of the Regional & Bespoke Builders Forum that was established by Edwin de Silva, business development director for Travis Perkins plc.
How did the forum originate?
In March 2020, when the first lockdown kicked in, my role went from one where I was spending a lot of time face-toface with housebuilders to being stuck at home, like everyone else, and like everyone else, I had no idea what was going to happen. I then discovered that there was a different Zoom from the ice lolly I remembered as a kid. Several of the builders I was speaking to were concerned about how their businesses were going to survive, so I thought I would get a group together on a video call.
It kicked off with 16 of us talking for over two hours and proved to be quite a cathartic experience, with everyone suggesting that we have another call the following week. And so it continued week after week with a few more builders joining. This led to me touching base with Stewart Baseley, executive chairman of the Home Builders Federation, to see if he could afford the time (in between his
meetings at numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street) to talk about what had now grown to a group of over 35. By providing them access to people like Stuart, who were able to supply vital information to make better informed business decisions, it really established the value of this collective of small builders.
On the back of this, we started to invite other guest speakers each week to cover subjects that were relevant and of interest to this ever expanding group. We continued doing weekly calls through to July 2020, then bi-weekly as site access opened up, and then monthly from 2021. We now have over 150 people that are part of this forum; it’s been quite a journey, over what will be three years in March.
Who were some of the key guest speakers?
A major early win for us was when Lee Bishop, group strategic land managing director at Taylor Wimpey, kindly agreed to talk to us at a time when everybody needed to know how to open up safely for their people on site. He kindly shared the processes that Taylor Wimpey had put in place to satisfy the government’s requirements for construction sites at that time. The PLCs can sometime get unfair criticism, but this showed how big can help small during a crisis, and it was great to have Lee give up his time to explain how SMEs could re-open according to guidelines.
Getting the involvement of the Builders Merchants Federation chief executive John Newcomb was important, too, as he was able to provide a great insight into the work they were doing with all builders merchants, suppliers and government, as well as managing the challenges with lead times on certain products/materials that were causing a major issue.
Stewart Baseley and the HBF team deserve a lot of credit, as they have been extremely supportive and spoken many times on subjects of great value and interest, answering pressing questions that people had and following up afterwards with SMEs directly where required.
Hopefully, the Covid peak is now well behind us, but challenges remain. What is the forum helping SMEs with and how?
What we’ve been able to do is build a close network of SMEs that are sharing information with each other and having access to various organisations and senior leaders operating within the industry, that they would struggle to get to as individual businesses. It has certainly helped to raise the profile of SME builders and given them a much louder voice to be heard.
In January 2023, the forum was addressed by Andrew Lewer MP, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group specifically charged with SME housebuilding, a group he set up. There was an audience of 70 people listening to what he had to say, and as a result
he has agreed to have a face-to-face meeting with 12 housebuilders to discuss further the issues raised on the call.
Why are SME housebuilders so vital to the UK economy?
Because no other part of the housebuilding industry has the potential to scale up in quite the same way. SMEs currently build circa 35,000 homes a year, nearly twice the number of homes as the largest national housebuilder. If given the right level of support, there is no reason SME builders can’t be a major contributor in delivering the number of homes needed to satisfy the housing requirement.
On a personal level, I joined Travis Perkins plc eight and a half years ago with a remit to ‘live and breathe’ this sector, which has
reduced from 11,000 SMEs (due to the financial crisis in 2008) to an estimated 2,500 today.
What sort of things are you planning for 2023?
All the guest speakers and topics are driven by what members would like to be covered, with my role to facilitate and coordinate the forums, utilising my connections to get the appropriate guest speakers (potentially Michael gove!) to participate.
We’ll continue to provide a voice and connections for the small companies who struggle to have their say and give them access to people and sources of information that they’re not normally privy to. Much like LDS are doing with Boost, it’s about helping SME housebuilders punch above their weight.
So, how do people join?
It has mostly grown by word of mouth, with builders talking to other builders and then asking if they can be included. Any SMEs that would like to be part of these forums just need to drop me an email at email@example.com, as I am keen to ensure they don’t just survive but collectively work together to thrive!
What we’ve been able to do is build a close network of SMEs that are sharing information with each other and having access to various organisations and senior leaders operating within the industry
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