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Keep looking ahead and get used to change

The news that HS2 has appointed preferred bidders for the first three contracts to build the rail line, as exclusively revealed by Construction News, has buoyed the sector.

The delay in appointing the contractors, originally expected in August, is not specifically Brexit-related. But the timing, which coincided with the delays to decisions on Hinkley Point C and Heathrow expansion, added to a general sense of uncertainty for the sector.

The next ‘H’ the sector needs good news on is housing – and the signs are positive. Communities secretary Sajid Javid has already indicated this government will put a greater emphasis on supply-side measures than the previous administration’s focus on boosting the demand-side via Help to Buy and similar schemes.

A housing white paper, expected around the time of the Autumn Statement later this month, will hopefully contain more detail.

The industry needs these boosts. The latest index from construction intelligence provider Glenigan reveals that project starts in the three months to September were 9 per cent lower than a year ago and 15 per cent below the previous three months. 

And the latest Leading Edge barometer found sales in the businesses surveyed grew by just 1.6 per cent in the six months to October. 

Perhaps most striking is the CITB’s revised assessment of the number of people the industry will need over the next five years. In the wake of the EU referendum, its forecast recruitment requirement through to 2020 has fallen by a third from 232,000 to 157,000.

Given the difficulties the industry has in recruiting enough skilled workers – not to mention the threat that employing migrants might become more difficult – this may, at first glance, sound like a relief.

But it will still be a massive challenge to recruit that number. And the bigger picture is that there is really no good news in the forecast pipeline of work being scaled back.

Firms will still need to be innovative and inventive to recruit more staff. At an event held by Wates earlier this month, skills minister Robert Halfon emphasised construction’s central importance to the wider apprenticeship reforms, stressing that his goals weren’t just about numbers but about quality, and urging the industry to lead the way.

Of course, what all these figures and forecasts show is just how quickly the outlook can shift at the moment. The construction industry is going to have to get used to change. Keep an eye on forecasts and prepare to be fleet of foot.

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