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Irish innovation can underpin the industrial strategy

John Hunt

This week construction landed one of the first sector deals as part of the government’s industrial strategy to boost UK productivity.

In what has been a strong week for the sector, the Budget also gave a massive boost to offsite construction, which will be favoured for public infrastructure schemes from 2019. Commitments to housebuilding and £34m for teaching construction skills, with a further £30m invested in digital courses using artificial intelligence, were equally well received.

While this drive to improve offsite, digital and construction skills is good news for the industry, labour shortages for infrastructure and housing ahead of Brexit remain a major concern.

It has been widely reported that the UK will require 400,000 new construction workers every year until 2021 to deliver all the planned projects in the National Infrastructure Delivery Plan (NIDP), even before taking Brexit-related immigration issues into account. It will not be possible to fill these roles simply by training more people or though the increased use of technology and automation – at least in the short term.

Unique position

Collaboration with key partners will therefore be crucial. With trade in Irish products and services to the UK increasing by 68 per cent over the past five years to hit €1.29bn in 2016, Irish companies are uniquely positioned to support the ambitions of UK construction.

Building on strong domestic capacity, Ireland’s construction sector comprises a diverse range of companies with several hundred organisations already trading in the UK – providing a vital skills injection.

“Ireland’s digital capabilities are deepening, with 76 per cent of industry organisations ‘confident’ in BIM”

In particular, the UK will continue to benefit from Ireland’s capability in the offsite sector through innovative companies such as Shay Murtagh, an offsite firm that has worked on precast tunnel linings for Crossrail and is supplying Mersey Gateway as well as several Network Rail improvement projects.

BIM confidence

Digital design and construction is another critical growth area. A recent Enterprise Ireland survey showed that Ireland’s digital capabilities are deepening, with 76 per cent of industry organisations ‘confident’ in their BIM skills and knowledge.

For example, John Sisk & Son was recently appointed by Quintain to build 745 build-to-rent apartments on its Canada Court scheme at Wembley. Quintain chose Sisk as its partner due to a “shared focus on providing the most efficient design for the product they were creating as well as embracing BIM”.

Despite economic uncertainty, trade relationships between the UK and Ireland can be expected to deepen even further around mutual needs over the coming years.

Ireland has a competitive advantage as an innovation hub in the construction industry and will continue to provide vital capacity, innovation and capability in the UK. 

John Hunt is a senior market adviser – construction sector – at Enterprise Ireland

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