Huge opportunities and tough challenges for region’s construction sector

09 August 2021

New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership’s Building Growth group works to drive sustainable economic growth in the construction and development industry. In this interview, its Chair Saul Humphrey discusses the issues confronting the sector and the opportunities on which it needs to capitalise.

What are the challenges facing the construction industry right now?

“We have got a number of challenges facing us. There are the current issues with materials shortages and the cost inflation like I’ve never seen before. We are seeing ridiculous situations where suppliers have limited the number of bags of cement you can get and restrictions on concrete deliveries. There’s been doubling in the price of some steel and timber products from the price a year ago. We’ve got rampant global demand probably fed by lockdown inertia, new-found confidence, and growing domestic work, coupled with supply chain shortages. Whether there is a Brexit dimension to that we could debate, but there are problems getting goods from China and we’ve seen the complications in the Suez Canal. It’s a perfect storm of record demand with huge shortfalls in supply. That’s been further compounded by a shortage of lorry drivers and an increasing shortage of skilled tradespeople.

 “Approximately twice the number of people will retire each year than join the construction industry and that’s just not sustainable. The average age of a steel fixer is 57, it’s a very male-dominated industry, and although diversity improvements are happening, it’s not fast enough. For some reason, construction is not attracting the young people it should, which is ironic considering the rewards are fantastic, not just in terms of money, but work skills, the ability to work on your own home, and a job for life. It’s not all early morning starts in the rain; there is more to it, particularly for professionals and young people wanting a broader career in a sector where you can make a permanent and sustainable difference. Creating something tangible is hugely rewarding. This is one of the long-term issues we have to fix.

 “We also have a housing crisis that’s not going away. We have a population that needs more homes, and we are struggling to build them fast enough. You can talk about planning issues, utilities, the cost and shortage of land, but you’ve also got to remember biodiversity, habitat loss and the value of green space. That’s a tricky balance to strike.”

There are a lot of infrastructure projects happening or on the horizon in the region, such as the Third River Crossing in Yarmouth and major energy projects, including Sizewell C. How much of an opportunity do they represent?

“All that offshore wind gets brought onshore and two or three of those projects are already happening, which is great. The elephant in the room is Sizewell C. The scale of that is colossal compared to all the others combined and this site could potentially see five thousand people onsite every day and that has a huge impact on local labour availability. But it’s great to watch what the FE colleges in the area are doing in response. I am a governor at East Coast College and it’s encouraging to see them start a new civil engineering and construction campus to accommodate the extra demand. A lot of the colleges are working together to complement this and provide more skills for young people. It’s not easy learning to be a crane driver or a steel fixer or to place concrete. The heavy engineering skills are not easily taught in a classroom, so having the right technological support with simulators plus real plant and equipment can offer some real-life practice before embarking onto a construction site.

What are the barriers to entering construction as a career and what can we do to tempt more people into the industry?

“I think it is perceived as a rather stale industry perhaps lacking the excitement and glamour of others, so we have got to do something to fix that because that perception is misplaced. For young people the opportunities in construction are enormous and incredibly varied. From the traditional trades to design, from site management to HR the breadth and diversity of choice is huge with ever greater opportunities for the IT and digital skills, that are actually at the heart of construction projects today.”

What role can the industry play in the drive towards Net Zero?

“I’m working with a company called Human Nature which has ambitions to build Europe’s most sustainable large-scale development at Hethel: a place which is carbon-positive, where people don’t rely on their car because they are near the train station and key places of work such as Lotus Cars, Hethel Innovation and the proposed BREEAM “Outstanding” Norwich Energy Innovation Park. It is at the heart of the Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor right next to the A11 – just in case they want to take their EV onto the road! There aren’t many developers that are putting carbon before profit, but legislation is catching up. It won’t be long until we can’t have a new gas boiler and new properties will have to have renewable technology, and that can’t come soon enough.

“In any one year, if we meet the Government’s aspirational figure of 300,000 new homes – and we rarely ever hit that number – we still only replace about one per cent of the UK’s housing stock. The rest is old stock and if you look at our climate commitments around 2030 and ultimately 2050, many of the properties that exist now will still be around then. So, we’ve got to do something to make the old stock better insulated and not dependant on fossil fuel, and that is the other huge opportunity for construction-related activity in the UK.”  

Norfolk & Suffolk has excellent connectivity and is increasingly attractive as a place to live, especially with the pandemic leading to people moving out of London and seeking a higher quality of life. What can we do to make this region even more appealing to investors?  

“We need places that have got a ‘green light’ that encourages and welcomes sustainable and inclusive development to happen. I think people will want to establish their businesses and homes in this area, but we have got to do that in a way that avoids creating opposition to those sites being developed. Not many people want something large built next to them – it’s an obvious reaction. But if we build in the right locations, sustainably, with the right carbon considerations without loss to habitat or biodiversity, then I think we can get it absolutely right.”

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