A survey by the Construction Employers Federation (CEF) of 200 Northern Ireland contractors found that half are expecting to make substantial redundancies. Not only is the commercial sector holding back investments, but government-allocated funding has failed to materialise.
If planned public sector construction work got moving, as is happening in England, much of the anticipated damage to Northern Ireland’s construction industry could be averted, the employers say.
The money is there, but it is just not being spent.
The CEF said that 2020 started with a high degree of optimism: after three years of political stalemate and absenteeism by local representatives, things were finally moving forward. Westminster had allocated an increased capital budget for the Northern Ireland Executive and approximately £1bn was found to support the New Decade, New Approach initiative to entice all parties back to the business of government.
Then came Covid-19.
CEF’s incoming managing director, Mark Spence, said: “In any other year, the CEF would typically be calling for additional budgets. This time, the call is simply for the budgets that have already been allocated, to be spent before the end of March 2021 at which point unspent monies risk being returned to Westminster.
“Finance minister Conor Murphy, in a recent meeting with the CEF was clear he has no intention of allowing NI budgets to be returned to Treasury, but in order for that to be the case, urgent action is required to refocus, procure and award contracts.”
Mark Spence continued: “In the eye of a storm such as this pandemic, no-one expects perfect decision-making; these are unprecedented times. However, we do need the wheels of government to start turning with more urgency and we look across the Irish Sea with some envy at the political impetus behind the English construction sector which is being primed to build the economy out of recession.”
Because of the recent political vacuum in Northern Ireland, several major flagship projects have been on hold for year, including Casement Stadium, York St Interchange and the A5.
The budgets available for these schemes should now be diverted to shovel ready, smaller schemes, the CEF says, such as local water and roads infrastructure, social housing, urban landscaping, school refurbishments and health estate reconfigurations.
Northern Ireland is also missing out on the Green Homes Grant scheme, to which £2bn has been allocated in England. Homeowners and social housing providers are being heavily subsidised to invest in upgrading the thermal efficiency of their properties – but only in England.
If Northern Ireland could have a slice of this, it would not only aid the environment and address fuel poverty, but also retain skills within the industry and offer training opportunities for young people.
Mark Spence concluded: “If this Assembly finds itself at the end of the financial year having underspent its allocated budgets and handing back money to Westminster, it must be held accountable to those whose jobs have been lost unnecessarily.”