With the nation heading to the polls in one week’s time and the future of the nation unclear, whoever is in power after the 8 June vote will have a lot on their hands.
With this in mind, Construction News is taking a closer look at the most pressing issues in construction and what any new government could do to ensure the sector is in good health heading into the next decade.
Alongside this, we’ve asked experts from across the industry including from Aecom, Arcadis, CECA, the CPA, Gleeds, RICS and WSP for their thoughts on what issues need to be addressed and what policies would be welcomed.
In the first instalment of CN’s Top 50 election priorities, we count down from 50 to 41.
50) Invest in superfast broadband and 5G
The roll-out of superfast broadband has been announced, and announced again by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for a number of years now, and progress has been made on speeding up the nation’s digital infrastructure – but more could be done.
In 2013 the coalition government pledged to spend £250m as part of the superfast extension project and superfast broadband was initially predicted to be installed in 95 per cent of all UK premises by the end of 2017.
However, a survey by the British Chamber of Commerce in March this year found that a third of businesses in rural areas did not have a stable connection at all and the government itself has admitted that the 2017 target is likely to be missed. Investment in this area is not only an opportunity for the industry but also a boost for the wider economy.
According to a parliamentary report published in March, the UK ranked third out of the top five EU nations in availability of ultrafast broadband (which is headline speeds of 100 Mbps or more) with coverage in 40 per cent of the country. This lags behind Spain (74 per cent) and Germany (64 per cent) but is ahead of France and Italy. However, there is also an argument that the government should be looking beyond broadband and thinking about how 5G should be rolled out.
Gleeds chairman Richard Steer says investment in 5G should be a priority: “I travel quite a lot and often the facilities in the UK are worse than in a many third-world countries. We’re still laying things in trenches not integrating them. We need to invest in future infrastructure and consider 5G now.”
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49) Get behind the wheel of driverless technology
The image of driverless vehicles scooting down our streets may sound like something out of The Jetsons.
But if some of the predictions materialise then the future is about to arrive on our doorstep. The big question is whether the UK (or any other developed nation) is ready for something that could revolutionise personal travel on a scale not seen since horse and carts were trundling along our muddy turnpikes.
The infrastructure needed to accommodate the new technology could also be a boon for the construction sector and change the way industry thinks about cities. The previous government has made the right noises with regards to turning the UK into world leader in driverless technology.
In October 2016, transport secretary Chris Grayling encouraged manufacturers to develop their technology in the UK, and an Aecom-led consortium secured more than £4m and Amey £250,000 from Innovate UK and the Centre for Connected & Autonomous Vehicles to develop driverless car technology.
48) Commit to more Thames crossings – and deliver them
Bridges across the Thames have made the headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years. Notwithstanding the recent furore over the Garden Bridge, the issue of new crossings over the river is one that needs to be addressed.
East of Tower Bridge, there is currently only one bridge for 20 miles and four crossings in total if you include the Blackwall and Rotherhithe tunnels and the car ferry at Woolwich. Compare that with west of Tower Bridge and there are 17 car bridges alone filling up the space from the City through to Richmond.
East London’s development depends on access and transportation. A commitment to addressing the chronic shortage of Thames crossing in east London is finally starting to be addressed, with mayor of London Sadiq Khan giving the green light to three schemes including the £1bn Silvertown Tunnel, a pedestrian bridge between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf, and an extension to the DLR.
Earlier this year the government has also been giving encouraging signs by backing a £6bn new Lower Thames Crossing, which will link the A2 and the M25 to reduce congestion at the Dartford Crossing. Any new government reaffirming its commitment to LTC is to be welcomed. However, there is an argument that even more are needed long term and those which have been announced should be delivered faster.
47) Deliver the new M4 relief road in south Wales
Anyone sat in the traffic on their way to a match in Cardiff such as the Champion’s League final this weekend could be forgiven for thinking that the queue for the car park starts 10 miles to the east of the Welsh capital in Newport.
The M4 more often resembles a car park more than a motorway at this pinch-point and has been running over capacity for a decade, affecting both traffic and also arguably wider investment and growth for the region.
The government was being lampooned over slow progress on the Newport relief road (among others) by the British Chamber of Commerce as far back as 2012. Five years on and a spade is yet to hit the ground.
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46) Tackle late payments in the industry
Late payment is an issue that has dogged construction for too long and the problem doesn’t appear to be getting better. Last year’s Euler Hermes Quarterly Overdue Payments Report found that late payments in the industry had risen by 27 per cent during 2015.
The impact on cashflow, in particular for SMEs, can be devastating at any time, but is especially acute during a downturn or when prices and wages rise. Though late payments are common throughout the private sector, the public sector is also to blame.
Regulation 113 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 requires that every public contract awarded contain provisions requiring valid and undisputed invoices to be paid within 30 days.
However, new research in February by the Electrical Contractors’ Association, the Building Engineering Services Association and Scottish electrical trade body Select found just 43 per cent of those polled and working direct for the public sector said they were typically paid within that timeframe. A government that can tackle late payment across all sectors – but especially construction where the issue is arguably more complex than in other industries – could have a huge impact on raising confidence.
45) Consider new ‘licence to trade’ barriers to ensure quality
The debate about quality of products has become a core issue since the EU referendum, especially since many EU regulations may be dropped after we leave the in 2019.
The scrapping of the Green Deal and the Code for Sustainable Homes has drawn support and criticism from across the industry. However, Cast Consultancy director and founder Mark Farmer believes quality concerns could be tackled another way, by setting up a “licence to trade” barrier for the industry – something the next government could consider.
Mr Farmer says quality must be put “at the heart of any construction modernisation agenda, alongside skills, technology and productivity”.
He adds: “This may include consideration of new ‘licence to trade’ barriers to entry (as in Germany) and consolidating an industry-wide ‘gold standard’ accreditation / warranty platform, decoupled from any conflict of interest, for both domestic and commercial customers of the construction industry.”
44) Fix the fragmented construction supply chain
Issues within the supply chain are a perennial headache for successive governments. However, despite a plethora of reports, the problems still persist.
The government took a good look at the issue in 2013 with the publication of a 145-page report that called for the structural issues behind the fragmented nature of the industry to be addressed, including uptake of BIM, wider adoption of an integrator role of supply chain management, and optimising performance through repeat work and volume savings.
Construction Products Association chief executive Diana Montgomery says the government can use procurement to help address the issue. “We would ask government to roll out its balanced scorecard approach to all of its own procurement,” she says.
“This would introduce guidance around themes such as environmental sustainability and supply chain management to be factored into the procurement valuation process and not just base decisions on lowest price. This will not only safeguard UK suppliers competing on a level playing field for contracts, but also ensure government gets best value though the innovation of UK-based manufacturers.”
43) Give the new metro mayors more powers – and cash
With the results of the six new metro mayoral contests now known, it’s time for the government to start loosening the reins of power – and the purse strings.
The UK is one of the most centralised countries for its size in the modern world, and this concentration of power is having a knock-on effect on productivity. According to the Office for National Statistics, people in London deliver a third more in economic output per hour than the UK average, so the opportunity to raise productivity is immense.
The new mayors can go on trade missions abroad, deal with issues at scale, and though many of the new mayor’s powers are far less than those Sadiq Khan oversees in London, the government would be wise to start working collaboratively with the new administrations.
RICS president Amanda Clack says: “Metro mayors need to be allowed to build something of substance and have the ability to bring people in with them as part of that – having a vision and objective and set a 20-30 year visions for the city. How do you get all of the communities to buy in to that vision? You have to ask what can be done centrally to give city mayors and regions skills and resources.”
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42) Commit to Parliament’s £4bn restoration
Will they decant or won’t they? The story over whether MPs will move to a new home as part of Parliament’s restoration – coming in at an estimated £4bn at the lower side of the costings bracket – looks like being as prolonged as Arsene Wenger’s decision over whether to commit to another season at Arsenal.
The winners of the restoration work were picked almost a year ago – and a joint venture between Mace and Aecom is believed to have won the job to carry out the main works. However, the announcement still hasn’t been made.
The general election hasn’t helped to speed things along – and neither will MPs, who are reticent to give up their place in the crumbling palace. But whatever the reasons, the longer the delay continues the higher the costs could eventually be.
41) Public procurement should become less risk-averse
As the people charged with holding the taxpayer’s purse strings, the public sector has always held a conservative attitude with it comes to risk – people’s jobs and reputations rely on projects being delivered on time and on budget. However, the risk-averse attitude can also hamper productivity.
Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation vice-president Matthew Lugg says that, when it comes to highways and transport, the government can show leadership and ensure public, private and academic sectors work together to develop and implement solutions.
He says: “Brexit provides an opportunity to review the UK’s procurement legislative framework to enable / encourage innovation. This could encourage a change in attitude to the balance of risk between the public and private sectors.”
Construction News will publish further instalments of the top 50 priorities for the next government tomorrow and next week before polling day.