Pandemic recovery offers “opportunity” for construction industry, webinar hears

THE coronavirus crisis could be an opportunity to “restructure the economy” and fast-track moves to sustainable living, smart cities, and the mass creation of affordable housing, the latest Voice of Authority webinar has heard.

A panel of experts discussed the challenges facing the construction industry as the country starts to emerge from lockdown and consider the shape of a post Covid-19 future.

Shifa Mustafa, executive director of place at Croydon Council, was joined by Pat Hayes, managing director of Be First, Councillor Keith Ferry, deputy leader of Harrow Council, and Chris Tredget, managing director for construction in London and the East at Willmott Dixon for the hour-long discussion on Thursday, May 14.

Mustafa said the current crisis has opened up different actions that councils can take, including on influencing construction supply chains, and said the recovery could lead to radical change around the UK.  

“I do believe because of what’s happening with Covid-19, we are having to restructure the economy”, she said.

“What it will probably do is actually accelerate what we had started to work towards before, the whole notion of smart cities, environmental factors changing, technology changing.

“This will really mean many have to fast-track the whole restructuring of our economy and how it looks in the future.”

Ferry said Harrow’s plans for a new civic centre have been radically altered already, recognising the capacity of workers to operate in different ways outside of the traditional office.

“We have really had to rethink what we are going to do”, he said. “The present thinking is the civic centre we were going to build and probably still will build, instead of accommodating 980 people now it will accommodate 280 people. That’s a two-thirds reduction in the size of the building that we require.”

Predicting a sharp growth in the use of serviced and temporary office spaces, he told the webinar: “Certain people constructing offices may have to come and redesign those offices. There’s still a need for offices, but not the same need for people to come in to the office to do their work every day.”

Hayes said he sees a “big opportunity” for local authorities and central government to “think about reallocation of road space to walking and cycling”.

He said: “Most people commute for less than five miles, even in the south east, there is an awful lot of work we can do on helping people to get to work in a more sustainable way.”

Hayes also urged the government to take the first economic steps to help the country through the recession: “This may be a big opportunity through putting money into the public sector, to really improve the supply of affordable housing quickly. It’s exactly what was done after the First and Second World Wars, similar periods of economic stagnation due to an external factor.”

Tredget said one of the current challenges that developers are grappling with is the provision of parking spaces as workers are urged to avoid public transport. However he expressed confidence in the industry’s ability to deal with social distancing as more construction sites come back on line.

“I genuinely feel in control of what I have on sites, I’m sure all other contractors have that”, he said. “I feel more comfortable on a building site than I do in a supermarket because there is a good level of control there.”

He said maintaining the pipeline of work is a concern for the next few months, urging councils to continue dealing with planning applications and avoid the urge to over-regulate: “Let’s not over-burden and add more regulation to what we do. I’d encourage you not to put more controls in place than you had before.”

Ferry also told the Willmott Dixon-sponsored webinar that the construction industry has begun to act differently in response to the coronavirus crisis.

“Councils don’t normally talk to each other, developers don’t normally talk to each other, and contractors don’t talk to each other as they like to think that can carry on in their own little sphere”, he said.

“Being able to facilitate bringing people together to solve common problems is one of the great things to come out of this sorry crisis.”

The next The Voice of Authority webinar is at 11am on 21 May, looking at the role of core cities in fuelling the UK’s recovery. Sign up here to join the event.