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The Construction Sector as a Catalyst for Regional Growth

Last week we hosted the first in our new ‘Summer Series’ Construction Breakfast. The Summer Series will see us be joined by some of the key movers and shakers in the region’s construction sector for a sixty minute ‘meeting of minds’.

To launch the series, we were joined by Tim Bowles, Mayor of the West of England and Paul Smith, Cabinet Member for Housing, Bristol City Council, as well as over 60 participants from the construction sector and associated industries, eager to learn, share experiences and come together with other industry professionals.

Hosted by our Head of Construction, David Morris, we started proceedings by hearing from Mayor Tim Bowles, with his views on the major role the construction sector will play in galvanising economic recovery in the region. After Tim had set the scene and outlined opportunities for participants to continue the dialogue, the focus turned to affordable housing, with an update from Housing Cabinet Member for Bristol, Councillor Paul Smith. 

Paul spoke about the progress of current developments and future plans for the region and how affordable housing is a huge driver of economic growth.

Participants at the breakfast also had the opportunity to make new connections and network with peers in break out rooms and put questions to our guest speakers. Here is a summary of the discussion below:

Tim Bowles, Mayor of the West of England 

What do you see as the construction sector’s role in economic recovery?

“I recognise there have been real challenges for the construction sector, but it’s down to the people in this industry, including those on this call, that we have such a great place to live and work. We’re fortunate of our location in the country, , a brilliant crossroads as it were. But if we look at what has happened to the region in the past ten or twenty years to make ourselves such a globally recognised great place to live and work, the construction sector has had a huge part to play in making that happen.  That role needs to be recognised.

“We’ve now got to step up to the challenge about how we create a region that’s going to be agile and flexible to meet the needs we’re going to have in the future, particularly post- Covid, to keep ourselves recognised as global leaders . We know nationally that 50% of people employed in the construction sector have been furloughed and output is reduced, but I think it’s vital that as we start coming out of lockdown we recognise the role this sector has in leading the recovery. The Government recognises this too, we were asked just last week on a metro mayor’s update what we think should be done to bring forward projects more quickly, and submitted a raft of ideas.”

So what does the future hold?

“If we knew that or had a crystal ball we wouldn’t need to be having this conversation! But we do have to start thinking ahead now. What does the sector need to look like? What will the region look like? People in this sector are those who create, develop and deliver the homes we live in, the schools, our workplaces all of those things. Moving forwards, there’s something there to think about, the perception of the sector, we need to start slightly changing this with the public about what you actually do, because if it wasn’t for you we wouldn’t have the places to live or the places to work. I’d like to make this sector more recognised for its value as we move forward into the recovery element. That will also help bring new talent into the sector, which is vital.”

Where do you see opportunity for the sector?

“At the root of economic recovery: the construction sector has huge opportunity to be providing good, long term secure jobs and careers for people. I am interested in how we can start a dialogue with some of the other sectors that are more badly affected and how we can keep our skills in the region by transferring those skills into this sector.

“The question is, how can we turn this into an opportunity given that some other sectors are going to be struggling? There’s definitely a deeper debate I’d like to have with the sector here around what skills it will need in the future? Investing in skills in the region is vital, by talking to the construction industry we can better understand what the skills needs are at all levels. We can then start to look at how we tailor our skills provision to meet that demand. Challenges around finding jobs and securing employment will be something we face in the region but the construction sector could play a key part in easing this.”

How will the ‘new normal’ impact demand on the sector?

I know from talking to businesses in a variety of sectors and understanding their particular challenges, returning to work and the future of the workplace is one of their priorities. I think there’s going to be a lot of debate about what the construction industry will be delivering in terms of employment spaces, flexibility of existing workplaces, but also when it comes to new projects that are being built and delivered at the moment.

“How do we ensure the product we are going to create is going to meet the needs and demands of clients in the future? Bearing in mind if we only ever  look back at what previous demands were, we’re probably not going to be doing the right thing in terms of providing what we need as a region – to keep us a great place to live and work. Clearly remote working is going to have a bearing – most people agree it’s not going to be 100% remote working in the future, but we will need to look at the way we adapt our existing premises and also our homes to accommodate this way of working. We need to factor that in when we’re delivering not just new workplaces but new places to live. We will also need to consider space for social distancing in the short to medium term.

“There’s not one answer for every sector, every industry and every individual, but there’s got to be some thinking now about how we add value into the propositions we’re providing whether its homes or workplaces, about meeting what demand people have and building flexibility for when those needs may change. I don’t think that takes huge changes but I think there’s subtle changes we need to build in there in terms of how we’re designing home and workplaces for the future. I’ve seen lots of really innovative and clever things in the lockdown period where businesses who are delivering in terms of the property market have changed and amended, we need to keep this innovation in the sector.

A positive outlook?

“I am confident that we are going to remain one of the best places in the UK to live and work as the nation and economy recover. Through our national and global research we still expect to see more people to move into region, they’ll have different ways they work, commute and travel, but we still expect to be seeing good levels of growth because we have been so successful in the past and can build on this. In terms of attracting businesses to the region, in spite of lockdown our inward investment team have still been getting enquiries. We’re working with companies looking for new premises or looking to extend. We have got some businesses struggling but others are growing, that’s why I am confident this sector will lead our recovery and will remain at the heart of what we do to keep the region such a great place to live and work. I believe we still have a very strong long term future as a region, and my plan for our economic recovery, supported by our taskforce, will make sure that’s the case.”

Paul Smith, Cabinet Member for Housing, Bristol City Council

What part does affordable housing play in the region’s economic recovery?

“Housing is an incredible driver of economic growth – and quickly. In fact, every £1 invested in a new social home generates £2.84 in the wider economy. Infrastructure projects take 5 to 10 years to deliver a return. As soon as people move into a home they’re buying carpets, curtains, furniture, electrical goods, crockery etc. – this has a great impact back into the rest of the economy. It’s really important we make that case; housing can help drive economic recovery and it has been used to do that in previous decades.”

What impact has Covid-19 had on development and plans across the city?

“We have kept going at Ashton Rise with Wilmott Dixon, luckily we never had to come off site; it’s been slowed down by five to six weeks but we’ve sold our first house and we’ll be letting council homes later this summer. We’ve got 173 new homes with BoKlok coming at the Airport Road development, 30% will be council housing. We’ve got a similar arrangement with L&G modular in Lockleaze into planning. Goram Homes has started demolition at Romney House and work is starting soon at Baltic Wharf.

“The 14,000 homes at Hengrove are still going through OJEU, but it’s been a long drawn out process anyway so hasn’t really affected by Covid-19. Partnerships are forming ready to bid, however.

“We’ve then got 700 new homes planned, most are in the planning process or close to being. Also, in response to the need to move very quickly in terms of getting more homes we’re starting a purchase programme, we’re already in the process of picking up empty properties including ex-council houses. We’re feeling quite bullish about our ability to intervene in the market, as Bristol’s largest residential housing developer.”

What about existing housing stock?

“Covid-19 has made us look much more closely at our existing 27,000 homes in terms of social and economic and health impact – obviously with the health issues being much greater. There have been challenges with the buildings themselves and spaces between them, and access to good quality parks etc. Looking at our housing and which have performed well and which haven’t performed so well during Covid-19 and matching that with maintenance, management and popularity, it probably comes as no surprise that we’ll be talking to tenants about replacing some of our high rise estates with low and medium rise housing. This will be a really exciting project and one that will have tenants very much involved and co-producing it. We want to produce some much more effective environments than the ones we have at the moment.

How does the Green agenda fit with this?

“The biggest CO2 generator in Bristol is existing buildings, and the challenge of ‘retrofitting’ 200,000 homes across the city is a huge one, but we see it as a major issue. Climate change is one of the drivers of this. New builds it goes without saying we’ll be looking at carbon neutral homes, we don’t put gas in our new builds now, it’s all heat pumps or linked to council’s heat network. The Green agenda and the 2030 target are a huge driver of what we are doing, in terms of quality of space, maintaining biodiversity and enhancing green space. This is also incredibly important in terms of people’s health and wellbeing of course.”

What’s on the horizon?

“The Bristol Housing Festival, as a vehicle to foster innovation, has become more important than we first envisaged. I think times of crisis lead to a definite acceleration in terms of innovation and change. I think MMC is definitely going to be accelerated; we’ve already got a number of people talking to us about setting up factories in this area and trying to build a pipeline to justify that. Bristol Housing Festival also won an Innovate UK bid of £3 million to help with the evaluation and learning of over 400 homes across 11 sites in Bristol and we’re hoping that the Housing Festival will also help to find sites beyond Bristol.”

Part 2 of our Summer Series takes place on Wednesday 1st July. David will be discussing Modern Methods of Construction with two leading national experts. Matt Hallissey, Head of Strategy at TopHat, and Rebecca Wade, Bid Director at Kier will be joining us to discuss what is undoubtedly one of the key building blocks of the construction industry’s recovery. Book your place here!

 

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.

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