It wasn’t exactly the year that knocked the stuffing out of construction, but nor was it the grand feast many had hoped for. As we all gathered around the table, the mood soured as we realised the promised plump bird was little more than a few scraps and a wishbone – and nobody was going to even mention pudding. Joey Gardiner and the Building news desk review the year in construction
There’s nothing quite like a family Christmas lunch with all the trimmings. Sure, the turkey’s burned dry on the outside and semi-frozen in the middle, the sprouts are boiled to a malignant cabbagey sludge, someone’s forgotten to make the bread sauce, and the usual family rows mean it is all consumed in a stony, resentful silence – but, well, it’s Christmas, isn’t it? Ho, ho, ho, and all that.
For the construction industry, 2017 could – if one weren’t totally full of seasonal cheer – be likened to a somewhat disappointing festive meal. It all looked pretty appetising to begin with. In January we had a strong and stable government led by a popular PM, and it was becoming clear the 2016 Brexit vote wasn’t having a big immediate economic impact. The year started out promising to be, if not a feast, then a pretty sumptuous repast for the industry.
But the initial promise slowly dissipated. In construction output terms, January turned out to be the year’s high point, with a slow decline since then. Amid faltering economic indicators, the June election wiped out any hope of the political and economic climate starting to settle down after the tumult of 2016. As we all know, the result was a minority government in coalition with the DUP propping up a zombie prime minister – chancellor Philip Hammond managing to find £1bn down the back of the sofa to fund it. Since then Theresa May has seemingly been protected from being toppled by her own, incandescent party only by the very real prospect of a change forcing another election, resulting in a Corbyn government.
For the industry the most immediate fear from May’s self-imposed political disaster was what it meant for her ability to talk turkey and negotiate a successful Brexit deal. Some hoped that the dinner might be saved because the spectre of europhile young voters flocking unexpectedly to Labour would force her to conclude a more business-friendly, “soft” Brexit. But as the year went on, it became clearer that the main victim of May’s ill-fated gamble was likely to be the ability for her government to reach any kind of consensus on what sort of deal it wanted from the EU.
Meanwhile, the slow drop in output meant that a series of construction firms found themselves no longer able to sidestep the hard commercial realities facing them – with a number of the industry’s biggest names getting into serious trouble. And tragically, the year will in the long term be most remembered for the disaster at Grenfell Tower, the ramifications from which will be felt in the industry for many years to come.
It is all a long way from being the industry’s best year, by any measure. Sometimes it’s felt like more of a dog’s dinner than a Christmas lunch. Nevertheless, as at any stressful family event, most of the main participants have been determined to put a brave face on it all. And 2017 had a number of moments of genuine cheer. The year’s tasty morsels included the continuing strength in the housing market leading to more homes being built than at any time in the last decade, the industry managing to secure a sector deal in the government’s industrial strategy, and work starting in earnest on big projects such as Hinkley Point and HS2.
But there’s no hiding the fact that, overall, 2017 was not a vintage year for the industry. As we pile the last mouthful of shop-bought Christmas pud into our mouths, the overwhelming sense is not of having got through either triumph or disaster, but of continuing vague unease over what on earth we’ll be fed in 2018.
Enjoy Building’s Christmas meal for 2017 – just try not to get indigestion …