UK housebuilder Persimmon joins return to site work

The UK’s second-biggest housebuilder has announced that workers will return to building sites on Monday in the latest sign that the UK economy is reopening after weeks of lockdown.

Persimmon said it would restart work on 27 April, a month after it felt compelled to shut its sites because of the government’s pandemic restrictions.

The FTSE 100 housebuilder, which sold more than 16,000 homes last year, is the latest in a stream of major companies to reveal plans to reopen this week with new safety protocols. Persimmon’s rivals Taylor Wimpey and Vistry, formerly known as Bovis, both announced plans on Thursday to start building again. Vistry said it would resume building homes on Monday, while the first Taylor Wimpey workers will return on 4 May.

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Beyond housebuilders, DIY retailer B&Q reopened 155 stores this week. Some of the largest factories in the UK car industry also plan to reopen their gates, including those owned by Vauxhall, Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin and Bentley.

Dave Jenkinson, Persimmon’s outgoing chief executive, said the construction industry had government backing for the return to work, and said workers could be removed from sites if they do not adhere to social distancing guidelines.

On Friday, the government’s housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, urged more housebuilders to return to work, in an interview with Building magazine. The Conservative government, under pressure from its own backbench MPs, is keen to allow the economy to restart.

Jenrick said: “I welcome developers reopening sites following careful consideration of public-health guidance. Building the homes the country needs is vitally important. Work in construction can and should continue.”

The lack of explicit guidance for housebuilders and other sectors had caused confusion, with many firms unwilling to take the reputational risk of asking staff to return to work even if there were no legal impediment. Housebuilders in particular have faced protests from concerned workers.

Jenkinson said: “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.

“These new measures are fully compliant with government public health guidance and will be strictly enforced by a specialist team, with any individual failing to uphold standards being subject to disciplinary action and removal from site.”

Construction work has continued in some “limited instances” since the lockdown started, Persimmon added.

The company, which has previously been at the heart of controversies over executive pay, including a £75m bonus payment to its former chief executive, has not used the government’s furlough scheme and has covered the wages of employees unable to work. The company, which has also been a major recipient of the government help-to-buy subsidy, added it has no plans to access government funding during the crisis and “continues to pay all taxes promptly”.

Cancellations of house purchases are still at “historically low levels”, Persimmon said, suggesting that the effects of a looming UK recession had not yet been felt.

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