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Plumbing new heights

Finding someone to to fix leaking taps in London's social housing is a nightmare. So one council decided to groom its own handymen. Andrew Mourant reports

It's a familiar refrain up and down the country: you can't get a decent plumber or carpenter for love nor money. Nowhere is the problem worse than in London, So now one part of the capital, Hounslow, has decided the only solution is to grow its own.

Since 1999, Hounslow Homes Ltd, a council-owned company that maintains the borough's housing stock, has seen 450 apprentices pass through its in-house training schemes. They learn on the job and weekly day-release at Hammersmith college.

Having passed through government inspection hoops to win a two-star rating, Hounslow, which looks after 16,500 homes, obtained an extra pound;90 million to refurbish dilapidated properties. Around 1,000 have so far been improved.

Apprentices learn their skills at Sycamore Court, a block of sheltered social housing for the elderly above which monstrous jets roar in to land at Heathrow.

They will not struggle to find work. The Construction Industry Training Board reckons 76,000 people are needed each year simply to meet government targets for new buildings and repairs.

This has led to formation of a new partnership between contractors and social housing providers aimed at training recruits to work on long-term regeneration projects.

Hounslow, considered a shining example at managing housing, was chosen by Ivan Lewis, minister for skills and vocational education for the launch of "Sustainable Training for Sustainable Communities". It is an awkward-sounding mouthful but the aim of this scheme is to develop local pools of skilled labour, particularly in deprived areas where thousands of houses need doing up.

The Government is committed to ensuring that by 2010 all social housing is " in a decent condition". So far, 16 regeneration schemes from Bridgend to Stockton have been linked. "They'll be able to share information, visit each other; and learn from each other's successes and mistakes," said Hugh Try, chairman of the Housing Forum, which has members from across the construction industry "to promote radical and continuous improvement" in housing.

Touring Sycamore Court, where bedsits for the elderly are being converted into self-contained flats, Ivan Lewis appeared impressed by apprentices Michael Neal and John Moxom, both 18. Confronted by their tools, the minister remarked: "I'm a great disappointment to my father - he rebuilds houses. I haven't a clue."

It was Michael's father, an accountant, who steered him towards his apprenticeship with Hounslow Homes. "He introduced me to a plumber and I did my work experience with him. I like working with my hands - I couldn't sit down in front of a computer all day."

Michael is now in the third year of a four-year apprenticeship and optimistic about the future. John, in his second year of training as a carpenter and joiner, understands the opportunities his trade will open up, but intends sticking with Hounslow Homes "for a bit, to make sure I am confident".

Another model scheme is run by Pennine Housing 2000, responsible for the former council housing stock of Calderdale, West Yorkshire. Ths company is currently working on a five-year project to restore 13,000 properties.

Working with partner contractors Lovell and Keepmoat, Pennine Housing foresaw a severe local skills shortage and decided to act.

In October 2002 a training programme, "More than Bricks and Mortar" was set up through which 40 recruits will pass, a quarter from ethnic minorities.

One, Rizwan Jalil, 23, says the opportunity was too good to miss. "I was working in factories and signing on when I got to know about this," he said. "When you hear rumours about the wages plumbers get in London, people are going to be interested."

Trainees emerge with a broad-based Building Maintenance NVQ giving them skills in joinery, plumbing, bricklaying and plastering. Once word gets round about such schemes, wherever they are, there's often a clamour to join. "This year we had 260 applicants but have taken on just four apprentices," said Hounslow Homes managing director Chris Langstaff. "There are hotspots of unemployment here. A lot of people go off to be baggage handlers or cleaners at the (Heathrow) airport."

Hounslow Homes offers an attractive escape from such dead-end work. "We've got 240 in our repairs workforce working across all trades. We pay pound;4.60 an hour to apprentices but when you qualify it doubles and they'll probably get three times that.

"We're investing to save for the future. But there's a hellish shortage of labour in west London. You can't always retain people if they want a more lucrative job. A couple of our lads have come out as carpenters and got jobs working on film sets. You can't beat that."

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