A roadmap without a route?

While the First Minister’s statement and the subsequently published “route map through and out of the crisis” were welcome developments last week, the evidence Contract Scotland has gathered from various clients across the construction and engineering spectrum suggests that it left the sector with more questions than answers.

We’ve spoken to building contractors, civil engineering contractors, building services contractors, housebuilders design consultancies and architects, and the range of opinions and interpretations of what last week’s announcement meant for the Built Environment was as diverse at the businesses that expressed those opinions.

There was one common thread; confusion. None of our clients appeared to know precisely what the announcement meant for recommencing work on construction sites. From previous conversations we’d had, it was clear that a large proportion of our clients had been gearing up to restart on site as of the 1st June, subject to measures that will ensure safe-working being put in place, and had expected this is what would be announced. That’s not what we got. Or, at least, that’s not what a lot clients thought we got. What we got was reference to a Construction Re-start Model comprised of a 6 phase approach and confirmation from the First Minister that as of this coming Thursday, the industry could commence steps 1 and 2 – the fact that the first phase was referred to as Phase 0 only confused people further. The lack of a published version of the restart plan hasn’t helped either. We’ve had clients advise that they believe this means they can start on 1st June. We’ve had others advise that they’re now putting off starting back until the 8th June. Others the 15th June. And then there’s those that just don’t know when they’ll be able to start back who are waiting with bated breath for clarification/confirmation.

There was also a mixture of anger and frustration from some quarters, where clients felt the Scottish Government had failed to meaningfully engage with the industry – the appointment of Kevin Stewart, a junior minister, to lead discussions with the industry added weight to the sense that Construction hasn’t been sufficiently prioritised. Some civil engineering contractors were angry that it appeared that there had been no attempt to distinguish their part of the industry – where the nature of the work means safe working is arguably easier to achieve – from either the building or housebuilding sector where that could well be more of a challenge or will, at least, require greater planning. Furthermore, there was an almost across the board frustration that the first two phases – which according to the Scottish Government couldn’t begin until 28th May – have largely already been completed by an industry that has not spent the last two months sitting on its hands. The industry is far more ready to get going than it has been given credit for.

What all this appears to have meant in practice is that the industry is moving at different speeds and not as one. That may well be the best way forward, but that is happening in spite of rather than because of the Scottish Government’s guidance to date.

We’ve also seen the first signs of construction companies being led by their clients’ demands rather than Scottish Government guidance, because everyone is so unclear about what last Thursday meant. The lack of clear guidance is making it increasingly difficult to resist those demands.

It does appear that when the fog of uncertainty clears that the Civil Engineering sector will be able to move quickest towards some formal of new normality. No one we’ve spoken to expects to return to 100% capacity from day one or anything like it, but the timelines from day 1 of a restart to 100% capacity do appear to be shorter for civil engineering contractors than it will be for main building contractors or housebuilders. Those projects are generally more likely to be in more open spaces where site workers tend to work in much less close proximity to one another. Civil Engineering will still have its challenges, but clients believe them to be surmountable.

The logistics for ensuring safe-working for building contractors and housebuilders will be far greater and the road from restart to 100% capacity/productivity is likely to be far more challenging.
What will help everyone, though, is far greater clarity from the Scottish Government on what can be done and when. We should get that when the restart plan for construction is published this week. We might get further clarification when the First Minister addresses us tomorrow.

What is unlikely to emerge in the short term, though, is a plan that recognises the variety of construction/civil engineering businesses and their many, varied ways of working. Greater and more meaningful engagement between the industry and the Scottish Government is the only way of ensuring that this happens.

The question is, how likely is it that we’ll get that?

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Posted by John-Paul Toner
27th May, 2020
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