Our industry will not succeed in creating change if we continue with fragmented, underpowered and short term initiatives, writes Patricia Moore
As the government commits to infrastructure and development as part of its plan to ‘level up’ regions and rebalance local economies, our sector feels awash with opportunity. However, at the heart of the agenda is a stark reality of economic and social disparity. Construction must be more than just an enabler in tackling this – it’s time for the industry to step up as an agent for change.
The game changer needs to be how we capitalise on a pipeline of opportunities encompassing not just high profile programmes such as HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, but hundreds of smaller investments too
The work of the UK2070 Commission over the last eighteen months, in which we have played an active role, is shaping the policy landscape on ‘levelling up’. Backed by political figures from the regions and industry expertise, the final report launched today by the commission puts pressure on the government to avoid the mistakes that have plagued past programmes, and succeed in healing deep-rooted regional inequalities.
A key area of emphasis is on infrastructure – where our industry must be fundamental in joining up regions, cities, towns and railroad communities to fuel the growth of local economies. The game changer needs to be how we capitalise on a pipeline of opportunities encompassing not just high profile programmes such as HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, but hundreds of smaller investments too. This means avoiding the capacity crunches and price hikes typical of periods of opportunity, and instead identifying how we can actually upskill and modernise the sector through smarter, joined-up planning and management.
Beyond the connectivity provided by better infrastructure, the other key theme in the report is ensuring an effective response to the environmental crises we face. The commission highlights the unequal impact of climate change and the relationship between meeting zero-carbon targets while tackling the inequalities dividing communities – as disadvantaged areas are adversely affected by fuel poverty and housing with poor energy standards.
Much is made of the impact our sector makes on climate, but less so on our ability to drive positive change – taking expertise learnt in one sector and deploying it in others. This includes championing ambitious programmes such as the Mayor of London’s Retrofit Accelerators, which focus on improving the energy efficiency of homes and workplaces across London to create low carbon buildings. The close partnership between local authorities, public bodies and private businesses is fundamental to the success of initiatives of this type – and a clear example of why construction needs to have a seat at the table when it comes to the debate on climate.
Perhaps the clearest evidence of inequality across the UK is in our housing stock. While planning and policy have played their part too, as an industry we need to take responsibility for the quality and quantity of homes – and seek to do better. This means championing and making the case for greater use of modern methods of construction (MMC), that will enable new homes to be delivered at pace and scale.
It’s encouraging to see growing momentum around a government offsite agenda, as illustrated in recent funding announcements for local authorities. Taking construction away from sites and into factories will help address regional imbalances, skills shortages and diversity within the sector. We have the technology now and the benefits are clear and supported by the UK Research & Innovation Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.
The north of England has been pinpointed as the ‘construction capital’ with the launch of a new centre of excellence for MMC and it has the opportunity to leverage its expertise and lead the way in offsite, but modern methods of construction must become the norm industry-wide.
Our industry will not succeed in creating change if we continue with fragmented, underpowered and short term initiatives. We need a major cultural shift. This will require us all to collaborate on a comprehensive, large-scale and long term plan of action to deliver the change our society needs.
Patricia Moore, managing director UK, Turner & Townsend, and a member of the UK Research & Innovation’s ISCF Transforming Construction Advisory Group