With the release of a bullish set of forecasts predicting the industry’s global market will double over the next 15 years, Christmas could come early for construction


As a flurry of retailers launched headlong into gift-pushing advertising campaigns this week, there was also a sense that Christmas had come unseasonably early for construction, with the release of a bullish set of forecasts predicting the industry’s global market will double over the next 15 years.

On top of the headline prediction - that the global market will be worth $17.5tn (£11.6tn) by 2030 - the forecasts, from Global Construction Perspectives and Oxford Economics, contain even more promise for the UK sector. By 2025, they predict, the UK will have overtaken Germany as Europe’s largest construction market, off the back of shining, if not stellar, average growth of 2.9% per year.

Given the question marks over the stability of UK construction’s short-term prospects, highlighted in the expected downward revision to the Construction Products Association’s output forecasts for 2015, the prospect of sustained and significant growth over the next 15 years is welcome cheer indeed.

Of course, any forecast which looks this far ahead has to be treated with a large degree of caution as it will inevitably be affected by as yet unknown macro financial shifts and political events. But what is more significant about the research than the exact figures it reaches, is that the growth trends it predicts are underpinned by a close analysis of population growth - expected to increase by 10 million to 75 million people by 2041 - and the demands that this will place on the UK’s built environment.

The research is predicated on the logic that faced with this pressure, the UK will have no choice but to remedy decades of underinvestment in housing and infrastructure - and that that obligation will need to be met regardless of the financial climate. The link between population growth and built environment is, conversely, also cited as a major reason behind the slowing of growth in China - where a decline in population growth will coincide with China’s construction growth rate reaching a recent low of 2.2% next year.

The very fact that there is a backlog of underinvestment in the UK, is, of course, a stark reminder that an underlying need for new transport links, housing and schools is far from certain to be acted upon by the government of the day. There is, however, a growing consensus within industry that a tipping point is approaching where the need for major programmes of work cannot be ignored - with several observers pointing to steps the current government has taken to pave the way for large-scale infrastructure programmes as evidence of a more forward looking approach.

Developments such as the establishment of the National Infrastructure Commission, and steps (albeit shuffling ones) being taken towards airport expansion, support this view. But balanced against that has to be set the government’s calculatedly savage cuts to public spending, and the direct and indirect impact on capital projects that will be felt for years to come.

We report this week that the £2bn second wave of Priority Schools Building Programme work, which the government had said would be used to build schools projects between 2015 and 2021, will now not enter procurement until next year, because the Treasury will not allow it to be committed before the outcome of the spending review later this month.

The upshot here is that a building programme worth £2bn, already nowhere near sufficient to meet the demand for school places and the backlog of school refurbishment identified by the government’s own research, is being delayed as the Treasury scrabbles to make savings. This is a stark example of the shortsightedness that has led to the looming pressure on the UK’s built environment that this week’s research identifies.

It would be refreshing to think that Global Construction Perspectives’ analysis of the consequences of population growth on the built environment would lead to a consensus across central government that the aforementioned tipping point had indeed been reached. But so far, the sound of sleigh bells seems a closer prospect.

Sarah Richardson, editor