The year ahead promises to be a bumpy one but the way we adapted to covid-19 shows we have acquired the tools to carve out a robust future, says Ann Bentley
Like many, I use January as a time to reflect on the year past and look forward to the one ahead. Also like many, I sighed a deep breath of relief that 2020 was over. But then I stopped and thought for a moment.
There is no doubt that the year just gone has been one of the most challenging, both personally and professionally, for many of us. However, it has also been a year when, as an industry, we have achieved great things. We have shown that we can adapt to change, adopt new ways of working, and we can see that we are at the heart of the economic recovery.
Back in June, the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) published its Industry Recovery Plan 2020, aligned with the government’s strategy to use construction as a springboard for economic recovery. The CLC itself went through a renewal – with a much wider engagement across the industry.
This was rewarded with a much deeper engagement with government and the wholesale take-up of the CLC’s site and branch operating procedures, demonstrating that as an industry we have the wherewithal to act together for the greater good.
And while not a test that any of us wanted to experience – the robustness of construction’s approach in the first lockdown has been recognised in the government’s attitude towards the industry in this third.
We are seen as a sector that is organised, safety conscious and reliable – which is a long way from many of the adjectives I heard from officials and ministers when I was first appointed to the CLC. Although we find ourselves having almost gone back full circle during this third lockdown, the Restart, Reset and Reinvent strategy that the CLC developed remains clear and robust as a plan for the industry.
We have been forced to choose either to adapt working practices, embrace digitalisation and find new solutions to continue to work, or put our hands over our heads and wait to be bailed out
In December, we saw the publication of the construction playbook – a template for industry, co-developed and endorsed by the CLC, which sets out key policies and guidance as to how public works projects and programmes will be assessed, procured and delivered in the future. This has the full weight of government behind it – as demonstrated by the prime minister’s exhortation to “build better, build faster, build back greener”.
The playbook provides us with a template to measure and test quality and value, ensure safety and relevance, minimise environmental impact and maximise the positive social impact of our construction projects. The playbook is also firmly part of the “Reinvent” agenda.
It is not a short-term strategy to guide the industry through the next 12 months, but a long-term plan of how construction will build a better future – by focusing on long-term outcomes and value. We were not planning for survival in 2020, we were continuing to drive our strategic agenda, regardless of the macro climate we were operating in.
Moving forwards, 2021 will continue to be a bumpy ride for some time. The chancellor tells us that the economic impact of covid-19 will be longer term than the Treasury first forecast. Within our sector we continue to see distressed projects and businesses, with some anticipating a tsunami of covid-19 related contractual wrangles coming to the fore in the months ahead.
But we now have the benefit of nine months of experience, a plan and government commitment to work with us to improve – through the implementation of the playbook – and to invest in healthcare, infrastructure, education and town centres as part of the Build, Build, Build initiative.
As an industry we have risen to this challenge. We have shown we can adapt, and adapt fast, to changes in circumstances, and that we can be innovative and creative when we get knocked off course on the way. For many businesses, both in our sector and not, covid-19 has forced us to make some sink or swim decisions.
We have been forced to choose either to adapt working practices, embrace digitalisation and find new solutions to continue to work, or put our hands over our heads and wait to be bailed out.
The majority in the built environment have been in the first camp – playing to our strengths in solving problems and taking a pragmatic approach. We have worked collaboratively across the whole supply chain, supported our colleagues nationally and locally, and been creative – all this is reflected in the fact that output by the end of the year reached close to levels at the start of the year.
The challenge as we enter 2021 will be to continue this spirit and this positive action, and my own agenda will be to work with the Construction Innovation Hub to publish our Value Toolkit in the spring – a new process and supporting tools to drive better decision-making, support the path to net zero, boost productivity and resilience, and deliver higher‑quality buildings. This will be another tool in the industry’s toolbox to build back better.
We understand the task in hand; we have an industry plan for the future underpinned by government policy and a pipeline of investment. We now need to continue to drive the regeneration of our economy and work collectively to build the future.