An industry well placed to build Wales’ recovery

There is nothing normal about these times, whether that be the new normal or the old normal. But many working in the civil engineering sector are looking for a mix of the old and the new. In the first part of a two part article, Ed Evans of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) points to the elements of the ‘Old Normal’ which need to be protected.

During the depths of the lockdown from March to June, those of you who did venture out – albeit no further than five miles, I hope – may have seen the construction sector in many ways and in many places did not stop. We carried on repairing, building and enhancing. Sometimes this was for new structures like the (Nightingale?) Covid hospitals. Other times it was to press ahead with already planned construction projects, such as rail enhancements or road improvements, which actually became easier to deliver and prioritise with less traffic around. Much of this work was from projects previously commissioned through local government, and I am grateful to those local authorities who have maintained continuity of workload for these businesses. By adopting the guidance issued by the Welsh and UK Governments in PPN02/20 “Relief for Suppliers” those public authorities have helped to support both cashflow and workflow to businesses in Wales.

That was one part of the old normal that it was really important to preserve, but as we move toward the end of furlough then there are new concerns in the civil engineering sector that there is a lack of visibility in workload from the end of this month onward. This is a point I have raised with many local authorities in recent dialogue, usually with reassuring responses. The truth of the matter is that we remain in uncertain times. Whilst we are working with the Welsh and UK Governments to secure greater visibility of workload the reality is that many small contractors depend on local authorities for a significant part of their workload.

Given the enormous difficulties that these businesses are facing and the real possibility of many of them going out of business, with the resulting loss of jobs and opportunities in some of our most deprived areas, we are calling on the public sector, and, in particular local authorities, to do all they can to publish their short term investment plans and accelerate the design and planning of these projects and programmes to provide an immediate flow of work. The more of these businesses that fail to survive the less able we will be, as a nation, to recover from this crisis and the less able that local authorities and other infrastructure clients will be able to keep their local infrastructure as resilient as possible.

In discussing the situation with both local authorities and Welsh Government, I’ve been keen to stress the four Ps of the ‘Old Normal’ which really need to be maintained. These are:

  1. Pipeline – develop an agreed, costed and time-framed pipeline of public sector construction projects to support and grow the construction sector in Wales so that it fully contributes to our wellbeing as a nation.
  2. Procurement – develop a streamlined public sector procurement process that supports our foundation economy, is attractive to SMEs, proportionate to the investment, and minimises bureaucracy, complexity, and bidding costs.
  3. Planning – develop a streamlined, proportionate, flexible, and cost and time effective Planning system that supports, manages, and encourages appropriate development across Wales without impeding investment.
  4. Payment – ensure that we have a Welsh construction industry where the whole supply chain is paid fairly, in full and on time for the works carried out.

The public sector in Wales has an absolutely central role in making sure that all four of these Ps are carried out. Indeed, these messages are certainly being heard by the Welsh Government. We have been working together with them in a Welsh Construction Forum which is integral to a “Building a  Better Wales” approach that has been jointly agreed across the construction industry and the Welsh Government.

As Lee Waters MS, the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport who chairs the new Welsh Construction Forum tweeted recently, “The construction sector is one of the foundations of our economy and nurturing it through these difficult times is critical for the recovery. We’ve created a Construction Forum and I’m pleased that we are developing a procurement pipeline of project to help firms.” In its first meeting, in response to industry concerns over the survival of many companies, the Forum agreed a 12-point short term action plan to lead the recovery of the sector out of the Covid-19 crisis. A fundamental step forward is the production of a 6-12 month programme of public sector work to increase business confidence and secure employment.

All of this translates the old into the present and also recognises a fundamental fact of where we are now economically: the construction sector is actually the most resilient one and is the fastest growing to get us out of recession. By continuing to work together to maintain the pipeline, simplify procurement, and ensure payment then the future is more secure.

But the future can’t just be a duplication of the past, and my next column will reflect on how things need to change, both from the construction sector as well as the public sector.

This article was prepared by Ed Evans, Director of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (Wales) and published in the Western Mail on 13th October 2020