Counting the cost of 2023

Brian Berry, CEO of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), assesses the damage after what’s been a turbulent year for housebuilders, and what the new year might bring.

Unfortunately for housebuilders big and small, housing output has been in a continuous decline for most of the year. Small, local builders have been particularly hard hit, as their business models just can’t sustain long periods of low delivery. Survival for them means diversifying their business into other areas of construction. 

The result of this diversification is that dedicated small housebuilders are becoming rarer and rarer. Builders that are part of their communities and deliver the great diversity of housing stock we see today, of which the UK has become famous for, need a helping hand if they are to survive and thrive. 


At the Conservative Party Conference, which took place in October, I was able to take part in a series of events, debating alongside Housing Minister Rachel Maclean about how we can unlock the UK’s housing potential and deliver sustainable homes. While there are many challenges which both industry and the Government need to overcome, it became clear that there is appetite for progress, but the levers for this change have yet to be found. 

It’s plain to see that some MPs within the Conservative Party consider housing to be an existential issue, with many remembering that home ownership was once a core part of their political philosophy. It was certainly clear that they are keen to build, but will they sacrifice votes in their heartlands to do so? 


At the Labour Party Conference, housing was top of the agenda, you couldn’t go far without seeing a session or speech on the topic. I took part in a panel discussion with the Metro Mayor for the West of England Dan Norris, where he spoke about the plans which Sir Keir Starmer announced to Get Britain Building Again – with a particularly interesting exploration of the potential ‘grey belt.’ 

So, what is the so-called grey belt, in essence the poor-quality bits of land that have fallen under the protection of the green belt – bits of scrubland and brownfield sites that would be better served with houses built on them. These sites are far from the oak forests and lush fields that many imagine when someone mentions the green belt. I am keen to see how this plays out, as this very emotive issue has restricted sensible and sustainable development for too long. The early words from Sir Keir sound promising, but we will have to see more detail before we can feel confident that change is coming.


The latest State of Trade survey from the FMB provides a look into the market for micro and small builders. As with many other trackers, we have seen that workloads and enquiries have dropped in the third quarter of 2023, with workloads continuing their decline since earlier this year. In late November the FMB launched its annual House Builders’ Survey, a comprehensive overview of micro and SME house builders. Planning was unsurprisingly identified as the biggest barrier holding back housing delivery. As noted many times before, a very ambitious and pragmatic political agenda will be the only solution to unblocking the byzantine planning system.


With a General Election somewhere on the horizon, the FMB will be publishing its own manifesto for the industry, setting out the key tasks that our members will want to see prioritised by the next government. We will be working hard between now and the election to champion the issues that matter most to the nation’s small house builders. It promises to be an exciting, if not bumpy, year ahead.