The construction sector has a key role to play in unlocking wider economic growth for the UK, argues Arup’s Geoff Hunt.
The construction sector employs over 8% of the total workforce across the UK and represents 8% of GDP. Many will find it surprising that this is around eight times larger than the contribution of the automotive industry to our national economic output. Furthermore, we influence over 30% of GVA through the impact of the users of the built environment we design.
Despite the size of our contribution, we are nimble. Although some were hit hard in the early stages of the pandemic, we recovered quickly and importantly we still have the potential for growth and creating jobs rapidly. As long as we maintain a winning mix of blended skills – the engineers, planners and project managers – our industry will continue to deliver for clients and society and will fuel our future economic recovery.
With all of this in mind, I was delighted to read ACE’s proposals submitted as part of the comprehensive spending review which focused on increasing the resilience of our industry. We have lived with uncertainty for a while and with local lockdowns and a second wave this winter, we will have to live with it a little while longer. The tangible steps that ACE outlined to provide more clarity and increase our resilience should be backed by all business leaders in our sector.
Firstly, business confidence could be boosted thanks to the Infrastructure and Projects Authority republishing the procurement pipeline every six months. I know that for Arup’s leadership team it helps us plan ahead and gain a detailed view of the short- and medium-term picture. For many it is likely to also have an impact on jobs and future skills needs. Furthermore, it would allow us to identify when progress has stalled or slowed and nudge clients into understanding why-and how we can help in getting progress restored.
Secondly, there is plenty that could be done now to accelerate the design and development phases for some of our pipeline projects – even if they are a while away from being signed-off. Starting the planning and design processes early seems like a common-sense approach to ensuring that over the longer term the due diligence is completed in time and projects properly costed and valued. It will also mean that our industry doesn’t face a cliff edge with large gaps in procurement. More than a pipeline, we need to be creating a conveyor belt of projects to deliver more clarity for businesses.
Finally, the representation suggests a significant review and update to the national policy statements to ensure they reflect society’s net zero ambitions, as well as the national infrastructure strategy. Of course, this would create additional certainty around what we need to plan, design and how, as well as making our job easier it will attract additional private sector investment in infrastructure.
The government has, so far, taken the right steps with the furlough/job support schemes and offering loans to help us see through the crisis to date. Recognising our potential contribution to recovery should be the next step. ACE’s proposals are easy, cost-effective, but most importantly present a common-sense approach to increasing our resilience which will allow our sector to act as a catalyst for wider growth.
Geoff Hunt is chief operational officer of Arup in the UK and a board member of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.