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Can construction go green, whilst recovering from Covid and supply chain issues, or is this a bridge too far for a Government that has already promised so much?

The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) certainly thinks so, as it looks back on the troubling year behind them and forwards to the challenges ahead. The joint industrial and governmental body, backed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy (BEIS) was bullish in their annual conference (held virtually this year), ‘Reflecting on progress and success in 2021 and its plans for 2022’, touting their commitment to economic growth with green credentials.

Joined by guest speakers Fergus Harradence (Deputy Director for BEIS) and Lee Rowley MP (Government Whip, Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Minister for Industry)), the CLC set out how it aimed to overcome the double scarring inflicted on sector confidence by Covid and supply-chain issues and the blow to public confidence in construction competence in the wake of the Grenfell disaster.

Can Construction Go Green?

ConstructZero is the CLC initiative tasked with monitoring key “green” metrics within the industry to benchmark progress. Through monitoring such things as the percentage of diesel engines used on construction sites and the amount of EV charging points installed on construction sites, the CLC hopes these metrics will all go towards advising government on where best to utilise funds and highlight areas of concern. In addition to monitoring metrics, the CLC initiative will also signpost and support businesses towards the adoption of various green initiatives and foster communication within the industry and between industry and government. To develop these goals, ConstructZero has partnered with industry leaders such as CBI, PWC and NatWest.

COP26 provided the CLC with the opportunity to strut the green credentials of the Conservative’s “Build Back Better” and “Levelling Up” initiatives, showcasing the improvements in the UK construction industry resulting from the application of scientific findings around climate change.

Does the public lack faith in the construction sector’s competence in the wake of Grenfell?

Dame Judith Hackitt’s report and related Grenfell enquiry has led to several safety and competency questions surrounding every element of construction of such assets. The CLC was adamant to react by ensuring the right culture and industry change be adopted around safety in construction.

A period of assessment and self-reflection immediately followed the Grenfell tragedy, followed by anticipation of new regulations to prevent similar tragedies. Increased harmonisation across government and industry within construction to ensure best penetration of the safety policies and regulations is anticipated; already the CLC has coordinated an industry-wide focus group to meet this aim. Insurance has been highlighted for specific attention over the next year; in part due to the industry being seen as high risk by insurance industry and the resulting shrinkage in both availability of such insurance and the extent of coverage for many construction professionals and design and build contractors over the past 18 months.

Post-Grenfell it was clear the public lacked confidence in the Construction industry’s competence due to the intrusive questions lingering over every part of the industry’s role in the construction and administration of Grenfell. Several competency steering groups, set up by CLC, have released numerous reports and amassed thousands of man-hours in research. The results, the CLC hopes, will be renewed confidence by the public and insurance industry players on the competency of construction industry-wide.

People & Skills

Predicted growth over the next four years is estimated at 4.4% industry-wide, brilliant, right? Well… due to the pandemic’s dampening effect on the labour market, the CLC is taking proactive steps with government to concentrate attention on filling skills gaps in the industry that will inevitably appear. Currently, the CLC estimates that the industry will need to recruit an extra 217,000 workers, across 2021-2025(43,000 per year), with the contracting workforce already 100,000 below pre-pandemic levels. During the Webinar, the CLC set out their plans to address this issue, which include encouraging employers to achieve pre-pandemic apprenticeship start rates, scale-up trainees and establish a plan for delivering construction orientated higher education (specifically ‘T Levels’) across the country.

The pandemic severely impacted the recruitment of apprentices, due to the uncertainty created; the government introduction of £3k per apprentice in 2021/22 lead to an almost 2 fold increase in the recruitment of apprentices and various other grants for training apprentices up to L2/ L3, still far below pre-pandemic levels and crucially still not addressing the skill gap due to the absence of skilled workers L3+.

The key focus for the government in this area is three-fold:

—  focus on a significant increase in the recruitment of apprenticeships;
—  retaining workforce and ‘up-skilling’ the current workforce using traineeships and boot camps; and
—  Promote the rolling out of ‘T-levels’. T Levels are new courses that follow GCSEs and are equivalent to 3 A levels. Developed in collaboration with employers and businesses, these 2-year courses, which launched in September 2020, will prove instrumental in meeting the needs of industry and preparing students for work, further training, or study.

Question time with the Minister Lee Rowley MP & Deputy Director for BEIS Fergus Harradence

Both the Minister and senior civil servant took a series of questions on government plans in achieving their ambitious aims over the coming year and beyond. Some of the more pertinent questions revolved around the return of the £3k sweetener to recruit apprentices and the rolling out of T Levels in historically underfunded areas where the demand out-ways the supply. Minister Rowley was the typically coy politician pre-budget announcement and advised that they are looking into a multitude of solutions in-line with the government’s ‘levelling-up’ strategy which will be announced in the coming weeks. Mr Harradence was more forthright when asked about ‘The Construction Playbook’, confirming the lack of appetite within government to legislate aspects of the playbook, stating their preference is in offering guidance on best practice and sector reforms.

The Industry’s Take

In building back better the quasi-government body appeared to be pushing hard the government’s green agenda, however, industry contributors who attended the conference appeared more concerned with the financial credibility of the CLC over the green credentials. Due to the difficulties faced by many in the industry over the prior two years, there was justifiable scepticism over the efficacy of these provisions on a sector hamstrung by the pandemic, labour shortages, the increased cost supplies and the escalation of insurance premiums following Grenfell. Whether the two lofty ambitions are antithetical remains to be seen.

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