Industry Insights – March 2021: Laying the Groundwork for Industry Transformation

By Jen Heil | March 30, 2021

Welcome, friends, to the March 2021 edition of Smith Goodfellow’s Industry Insights. We’re a quarter of the way through the year and a full 12 months since the UK was thrown into turmoil by the first national lockdown and the industry has some exciting opportunities ahead.

In this month’s edition, we’re exploring the Construction Leadership Council’s (CLC) 2021 strategy and the ‘to-do’ list they’ve laid out for the sector. We’re talking about the implications of the news that the Green Homes Grant has been brought to a swift and untimely end. We’re also reflecting on how the pandemic has impacted our awareness and experiences of the spaces we live and work in, and how this could open the door to more inclusive, accessible design in the built environment. 

Spotlight on the CLC 2021 Strategy: Mapping emergency response and longterm change 

On 24th March, the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) published their 2021 Strategy, outlining their vision for “a safe and sustainable built environment, delivered by a world class industry”. Having been widely praised for their response to the government’s first COVID lockdown just over 12 months ago, which led the initiative on site safety and operating procedures, the CLC’s mid-term strategy will no doubt be welcome. It sets out strategic priorities and one- and three-year delivery plans, both for dealing with immediate challenges and instigating long-term transformation 

The strategic priorities outlined are grouped into three broad areas: 

  1. Supporting the industry to address its immediate challenges e.g. COVID-19, Brexit and the skills shortage 
  2. Convening and enabling the industry to speak with one voice, acting as the primary link with government to support growth, investment and share best practice.  
  3. Creating a world class construction industry that achieves resilience through sector and industry initiatives, including net zero carbon, building safety, digitalisation and increased exports. 

The Strategy begins by highlighting the critical role that construction has to play in the delivery and maintenance of essential infrastructure and homes that are the foundation to daily life” in the UK. The last 12 months have reinforced the importance of adaptability in fulfilling this role safely and efficiently in a fast-changing world, and have brought to the fore several significant challenges. 

Delivering net zero carbon buildings and infrastructure 

Developing the technical solutions and industry capabilities needed to adapt to and mitigate the impact of climate change is an ever more pressing priority. The industry must continue to push for, and deliver, the decarbonisation of new and existing assets, whilst protecting and enhancing the natural environment. The CLC identifies the following as essential to addressing this challenge: 

These action points will be driven forward by an industry wide, Net Zero Carbon workstream. 

Increasing productivity and performance 

The need for collaborative working across the industry, and up and down the supply chain, has never been clearer. Collaboration will help drive adoption of innovative technologies and processes to create high performing assets that work together as a system. This, in turn, provides better value to society and allows us to harness the great potential of the built environment for creating a better world. Addressing competence, efficiency, and adopting a wider understanding of value are all core elements of this issue. 

There has been a wealth of new resources, approaches, tools and roadmaps developed in recent years and many of these underpin the CLC’s action points to meet the challenge of increasing productivity and performance: 

The CLC ‘people’ workstream will also drive talent retention schemes; improving the effectiveness of training levy schemes; and creation of a single industry plan for recruitment, training and retention. 

Rebuilding status and trust 

One of the most significant challenges facing the industry is overcoming its current negative reputation and public distrust. Rebuilding this trust is paramount, as delivering a safer, more sustainable built environment relies on effective collaboration, not just within the industry but with the government and our communities as well. 

The CLC is prioritising ensuring that the industry has the capability, culture and business processes required to give investors and the public the confidence in the quality, performance and sustainability of the sector. This will be achieved through: 

  • Promoting the development of Digital Golden Thread solutions  
  • Enabling tracking of skills and competence using a single digital platform  
  • Mapping CLC activities to the Building Safety programme and leading the implementation of Building Safety proposals 
  • CLC leadership of Building Safety culture change – awareness and education  
  • Promoting competency-related initiatives  
  • Promoting product regulation and the Code for Construction Product Information  

Rebuilding trust in the construction industry requires commitment from businesses and individuals across the sector. We must work together to uphold our responsibilities to the communities we serve, operating ethically, transparently and with integrity to build a safer, more sustainable world.  

In addition to the points overviewed above, the 2021 Strategy also goes on to break down the CLC’s governance, workstreams and outline work plans. You can read the Strategy in full here. 

If you would like to get in touch with the CLC, please contact Stuart Young (stuart.young@beis.gov.uk), who leads the CLC’s industry engagement and dissemination. 

Green Homes Grant fiasco comes to an ill-fated end 

The government’s much lauded Green Homes Grant has been riddled with issues from the get go but, despite being held up as one of the key planks in the green recovery plan, addressing these issues has never appeared to be on the government to-do list. The solution they have landed on is not one that will be welcomed by the public or the industry: axing the programme completely.  

It was announced on Saturday that the scheme will be shut down from 5pm on Wednesday 31st March, giving just days for homeowners to submit their applications. The initial 7month term of the scheme was widely criticised from its launch, the short window hardly being an adequate length of time to upgrade the 600,000 homes the grant was supposed to support. These concerns were followed by stumbling block after stumbling block. Limited numbers of registered tradespeople left homeowners unable to find someone to carry out the work. Then administrative delays saw businesses left unpaid for work completed and having to make staffing cuts, after investing heavily to be able to deliver the scheme. 

Having announced in November that the Green Homes Grant would be extended for a year to March 2022, but with hundreds of millions of pounds withdrawn from the fund, this latest decision to cut the initiative entirely further compounds the government’s shameful handling of this scheme. Such a stop-start approach to green initiatives is hugely damaging to the industry. Contractors need assurance that continuation of funding is in place if they are to be able to engage with national schemes such as this, particularly with the associated costs for training and materials. 

The decision also further highlights this government’s disregard for its green commitments. The original fund was budgeted at £2billion. When the scheme was extended, the budget was cut to only £320million. Upon announcing that the scheme would be cut entirely, Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng chose to focus on the transfer of £300million to the local authority fundfocused on improving energy efficiency for lower income households. The transfer of this limited funding to the Local Authority Delivery Scheme and Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund leaves a gaping hole in addressing the energy inefficiency of the UK’s private households. Despite insisting that improving energy efficiency remains a top priority for the government, there has been no indication as to what will be put in place to plug this gap. 

 The shambolic management of the Green Homes Grant is unlikely to inspire confidence in either homeowners or industry professionals about the government’s commitment to meeting its energy targets. If we are to have any hope of meeting our responsibility in tacking the climate crisis, it is absolutely essential that a long-term plan with stable, continued funding is put in place. Short term stimulus packages that are abandoned before they have chance to get off the floor will simply not cut it. 

How lessons from the pandemic can open the door to inclusive design 

Adjusting to life in the time of COVID has reshaped how we experience the world around us. Not only that, but it is reshaping how we create the world around us as well. Whilst the pandemic is undoubtedly a health problem, it is also a design problem. In response, many temporary measures have been adopted to try and enable us to navigate the world safely, such as markers for social distancing, face masks and hand sanitiser at entrances to public spaces. But many of these temporary measures will influence long term change.   

This is by no means the first time that a public health crisis will impact the design of our built environment. It’s no secret that modernist architecture consciously followed the design of hospitals, when it was understood that sunlight and fresh air offered the only tenuous defence against the spread of TB and influenza in the early 1900s. Even the austere modernist colour choice of pure white walls arises from a desire not only to reflect more of that healing sunshine, but also to advertise the sterility of the space. Clean, bright, airy buildings are part of the legacy of that devastating period.  

Modern epidemiology will no doubt inform the design lessons we take from this most recent pandemic, but there are other factors to take into account as well. This is an opportunity for us to consider how we can create truly inclusive and accessible spaces going forward. Spaces that feel safe and healthy for everyone.  

Consider, for example, our changed perception of public areas – from supermarket aisles to office spaces, GP waiting rooms to pavements. Most people are newly wary of crowded spaces, having spent long periods of time stuck indoors, and are more sensitive to who, how and what they interact with on a day-to-day basis. This doesn’t just translate to crowded spaces but to any space that we share with even just one other person. Simply passing someone on the pavement can now be fraught with the need to maintain that safe social distance. But whilst these experiences might be new to us, they have highlighted the realities of the everyday lived experience of many.  

Take, for example, the hypersensitivity and sensory overload experienced by many autistic people. Crowded, noisy spaces can be upsetting and overwhelming, which may lead to avoidance of those spaces. Many of us have experienced similar anxieties around these kinds of spaces in the last year. We have become hyper aware of our proximity to others or, having spent so much time isolated in our own homes, have simply become unaccustomed to these spaces and are therefore more easily overwhelmed by them. Even being restricted to our own homes has placed on us some of the limitations experienced by many people with disabilities, chronic illness or mental health issues.  

 The pandemic, whilst not the ‘great equaliser’ it is often purported to be, has nevertheless given the general population a degree of experience of what it is like to live in a “non-compliant body”. This new awareness, then, should be harnessed to help us to design better buildings and public spaces. Not only to address the immediate issues brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic but to build a world that embraces, rather than disadvantages, the “non-compliant” bodies that are too often overlooked. Whilst we’re considering how we design to enable social distancing, we should also consider how we design to consistently make it easier for wheelchair users to navigate spaces. Whilst we’re considering how we design to mitigate the anxiety of being in crowded areas, we should also consider how we design spaces that are comfortable to those with sensory disorders.  

 We should also use this sliver of insight as a reminder to consciously recognise the challenges faced by those with a different lived experience to our own, and actively work to design out those challenges. Our places and spaces should account not just for health and wellness but also for social factors. How do we plan our urban spaces so that everyone feels safe moving around them? How do we create public facilities, such as bathrooms, so that everyone feels these spaces are open to them? We also have to think beyond those who will be accessing these built spaces and consider those who might want to but can’t. For example, how can we embrace the rise of technology and online streaming to build spaces that enable us to bring live events, exhibitions and other experiences to those who will remain confined to their homes, even as most of us resume our ‘normal’ lives? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised some very specific design challenges and, whilst these must of course be addressed, it’s vital that we don’t limit our response to the needs of this one event. Here is a chance to reimagine our world in so many different ways. Let’s reimagine it in ways that include everyone. 

Construction consultation round-up – have your say 

A number of the consultations that we shared in last month’s Industry Insights are still live. You can find links to these below and we urge you to submit responses where you can. 

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