Next year will be dominated by lessons learned from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the refurbishment of the Houses of Parliament, and a little thing called Brexit. It won’t be an easy ride, says Richard Steer

It’s that time of the year when the diary is filling up for 2018, and 2017 is all but dead as the Christmas party season gets into full swing and minds are no longer entirely focused on business. Working in our industry this year has, at times, been chastening. Some firms are still struggling, like Carillion, while others have left the stage all together, Lakesmere being the latest casualty. For me, looking forward to 2018 there are three big things that I believe will dominate the news agenda and impact on our sector.

Probably the most significant will be the output from the three investigations into the Grenfell fire tragedy, which I believe will pose some searching questions. The fire at Grenfell Tower in June this year shocked the entire country, prompting a huge outpouring of sympathy and grief, and raising deep questions about the divisions in society.

But if it shook the general public, it also rocked the UK construction industry to its core. Since Grenfell, businesses and professionals up and down the country have been reassessing how they work and reviewing the buildings and projects they own and operate. Overwhelmingly, they’ve been asking how 71 people could have lost their lives in a newly refurbished building, and what part construction played in it. 

Since Grenfell, businesses and professionals up and down the country have been reassessing how they work and reviewing the buildings and projects they own and operate

Following the fire, the government ordered both a public inquiry into the tragedy, led by retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick, and a full review of building regulations and fire safety by Dame Judith Hackitt. The police are also undertaking a full investigation. I am not going to pre-judge the reports; however, there are lots of changes that I feel will be proposed in 2018. These recommendations will need to be embraced and acted upon, and they will potentially have a fundamental effect on the way we build. 

The second issue – less important, but more contentious in that it directly affects our politicians on a day to day basis – is the noise that I believe will be generated by discussions around plans for the refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster. This is as high profile a project as you are ever likely to encounter. It has yet to sink in that, bizarrely, an American firm, CHM2, has been selected to run the scheme. I cannot see a UK firm being picked to upgrade the White House, in spite of the purportedly warm relationship between Donald and Theresa. Also the price tag stands at around £3.5bn, with a timeline of six years according to Deloitte, but only if MPs and Lords decamp and allow the professionals to get on and do their jobs. An alternate rolling programme, where inhabitants stay in situ while the work goes on around them, would be nearer £6bn. 

An interesting document was circulated by the leaders of the Commons and Lords in October this year explaining the various options open to MPs and peers regarding the refurbishment programme. It promises both houses a debate on which construction route they prefer: to stay during the refurbishment programme or to leave totally and numerous variations therein. With a sense of irony I read in the document: “It will be important that, whatever decision is taken, MPs and peers must ensure that the costs of delivering the preferred option are kept as low as possible to offer good value to taxpayers”. 

They have been given hard facts as to the best value option, and they still chose to prevaricate and debate as though the costs of £3.5bn versus £6bn were “advisory”, as opposed to realistic. There will be uproar if the bill is twice as expensive because some of the more entrenched MPs and peers dig their heels in and refuse to move. Watch this space … 

Finally, and it is impossible to ignore, the ongoing effects of Brexit will continue to impact our industry in a quiet but fundamental manner.  How will the 300,000 homes desired by the prime minister appear in high-density areas like London when so many of our trades folk that came from EU countries have or are looking to return to their country of origin?  

I suspect one thing missing from 2018 will be the vision of Messrs Gove and Johnson hurtling around in a bus that highlights the £40bn-plus bill it is going to cost us to exit the EU, a sum that makes the £320m they were going to deliver for the NHS quite paltry in comparison.

Every year presents its own unexpected challenges but next year promises even more than usual – and perhaps forewarned is forearmed. 

Have a Merry Christmas! And see you in 2018 …