A year ago, the prime minister stood behind a lectern, emblazoned with the words ‘Build, Build, Build’, and confirmed that construction would be vital to the economic recovery following the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, the government has pledged to invest further huge sums – including some £600bn across five years – to make the UK’s infrastructure ‘world class’.
This announcement is not entirely without precedent: governments have long recognised that infrastructure projects are an engine, not just of growth, but of prosperity, too. After all, project delivery already contributes £150-170bn to the UK economy every year.
And if it is possible to argue that the then-government slightly overlooked the importance of construction in emerging from the 2008 crash, its contemporary counterpart has been emphatic in its commitment to ‘Build Back Better’. But almost one year on from that first announcement, how effective has Project Speed, as it has since been dubbed, proved to be?
Spurred by the government’s backing, work is underway across the country. Indeed, in recent months, although output has admittedly fallen slightly, the sector has shown signs that it is recovering from the pandemic, with the Glenigan Construction Industry Forecast predicting that output will return to pre-Covid levels as early as 2022 thanks to major infrastructure projects.
Individual contractors will have seen the effects of the investment, too. Over the past year, Sir Robert McAlpine, for example, has worked in partnership with the government to help deliver on its ambitions to level up the country and we have seen first-hand the results of this investment. For example, our work with National Highways (Highways England as was) has led to crucial re-modeling of Junction 19 of the M6 and we have also upgraded parts of the M56 to help improve communications across the country.
Last year, we also began construction work on HS2 as part of Align, our joint venture with international infrastructure specialists Bouygues Travaux Publics and VolkerFitzpatrick, which is set to transform transport links between Britain’s major cities and free up space on the rail network for more freight and local services.
Early indications from Project Speed, then, are certainly encouraging, but this is not the end of the story. While investment is of course welcome, we should, as a sector, seek to repay the government’s faith by ensuring we learn the right lessons from the pandemic and drive lasting change in how we operate, which starts with working to boost productivity.
If the UK is to unlock construction’s full economic and productive potential, not to mention ensure Project Speed lives up to its name, we need to see a dramatic step change in the performance of major projects. If this is achieved across the £600bn-worth of to-be-announced projects, the reduction in delays could yield billions in savings for the taxpayer. This is, of course, the sector’s perennial challenge but one whose answer could lie in data.
According to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, a staggering 95% of the data that is generated on project sites goes unused. Buried within this wealth of information lie the secrets to enhancing on-site productivity: providing clues as to the optimal times for site deliveries; determining which elements can be pre-manufactured off-site; indicating where projects could benefit from more manpower; and even helping to automate the important, time-consuming support functions.
Collection of data alone isn’t enough, however. We also need to ensure that businesses pool data and share intel to ensure that productivity gains are enjoyed right across the sector. In fact, Sir Robert McAlpine has championed this objective by launching the Construction Data Trust, which brings together data from across the industry with the aim to drive improved data quality, unlock cost effective innovation and create one cross-industry response to common challenges.
Happily, though, if the last year has taught us anything it is the power of collaboration, to which the Nightingale Hospitals stand as testament. And with further moves afoot to encourage collaboration, typified by the government’s Construction Playbook, we stand on the cusp of real change. If we can add the sharing of data to the mix, we could ensure that the full potential of the government’s investment is unlocked.
But that’s not all. The investment in infrastructure provides an opportunity to pilot new, green construction methods. Take roads as an example. Not only notable for their arterial significance for freight, roads are also worked on by a huge number of the country’s contractors. Green methods pioneered here – the increased use of cross-laminated timber (CLT) or recycled aggregate, for instance – will eventually be carried onto other projects to act as a catalyst for change in other areas of the sector. In addition to investing, with the right legislation, policy and procedures in place, exemplified by the inclusion of ‘social value’ in March 2020’s Procurement Policy Notes, the government has an opportunity to drive real, sustainable change across the entire construction ecosystem.
This, then, cuts to the heart of the debate. While it might be too early to declare Project Speed to be a success, it is clear that it has at least set us on the right path. And with the right future support, construction can not only play its part in the economy’s recovery, but in averting the climate challenge, too.