Factoring in R&D at the tendering stage may be new to some but it can give a contractor significant advantages

Barnaby Redwood

Research and development tax incentives are of vital importance now that the economic forecast for the industry looks uncertain.

Despite the fact that growth in the construction sector hit a seven-month high in October, slowing order books and soaring costs, associated with a weak pound, are expected to hit the sector hard. Costs need to be kept in check and cash flow managed, and effective use of research and development (R&D) tax credits is a tool to achieve this. But for this to become a reality, the construction industry’s approach to R&D has to change.

There is a long-standing perception that research and development is restricted to people in white lab coats. This simply is not the case. In fact, HMRC actively encourages the construction industry to pursue these incentives. The last year has seen an increase in their adoption, but while construction accounts for 7% of UK GDP, it still only constitutes 0.9% of total R&D tax credit claims.

Even less well understood though, is the important point about how best to use the initiatives. The current approach tends to be retrospective – claims are submitted after a project is complete. While a lump sum pay-out is welcome at any time, this cannot be used strategically unless it is factored in as part of the tender process and then accounted for in real-time during a project.

While construction accounts for 7% of UK GDP, it still only constitutes 0.9% of total R&D tax credit claims

In this way, the cash-back from these activities can be included in cash flow modelling and the budget of an individual project from the outset. Construction firms can then make their pricing more competitive, or even consider a project that might not have otherwise appeared profitable. Given that the contribution could be anything from eight to thirty three pence back from every eligible pound spent, this could give them a significant edge over the competition.

But how should companies review their approach to R&D?

For many, factoring in R&D at the tender process is a completely new way of thinking. In a large part, it’s simply a case of educating staff to think differently and approach the tender process from a new perspective. Management teams need to understand the rules and understand what constitutes R&D including, for example:

  • Advances in engineering to develop new or unique materials;
  • Design and build of specialist machinery, or modification of existing equipment;
  • Adaptation of existing construction methods or designs to overcome site challenges, such as restricted access;
  • Introduction of environmentally friendly processes, such as significant reduction of waste.

Beyond that it’s a case of identifying the areas that are likely to qualify for R&D tax relief up front, and making the appropriate calculations; then, adoption of real-time tracking and recording of qualifying R&D activities and expenditure. A seemingly straightforward project could be hiding a host of challenges forcing plans to change and on-the-job improvisations. These innovations should be tracked and recorded as they happen – in fact, HMRC encourage real-time tracking – to ensure that businesses are claiming every penny they can. Of course, this approach carries a small risk, because you’re making calculations against claims that have not yet been approved, but if the process is well-understood, that risk is mitigated.

Properly used, HMRC’s R&D tax incentives can be a powerful and strategic tool enabling more competitive pricing and bolder business decisions. But the impact of rethinking R&D incentives does not stop at a company level. The construction industry as a whole faces a turbulent post-Brexit environment as the prospect of an Article 50-induced recession looms large. Tight margins and challenging projects will become the norm in this climate. But, by factoring in R&D tax incentives at tender stage across the board, businesses can take on more complex projects rather than having to water them down, keeping the industry moving forward.

Barnaby Redwood, Ayming