CIC Blog

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Is starting a professional career in Construction and Engineering still possible in the Covid-19 era?

Becan Lawless has a First Class Honours Master’s degree and a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Manchester

The year of 2020 has been characterised by many hits to the global economy, an unprecedented extent of uncertainty and some of the highest levels of unemployment in recent memory. It also happens to be the year that I finished my PhD, ready to go out into the business world and start my engineering career. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has not quite taken off in the way I had hoped. In this post I wanted to provide a bit of anecdotal insight into being a recent engineering graduate who is struggling to find an employment opportunity and reflect on some of the things that are helping me keep going. 

The number one adjective this year for me has been “frustrating”. I feel that I have built up my skills and experiences enough to be capable of a job in engineering, but out of the 100+ applications I have sent I can count the unprompted responses I have received on one hand. These include rejections. When I have pushed recruiters for feedback the general consensus has been that I do not have sufficient engineering experience for the advertised role. And no, the engineering I did for my PhD doesn’t count; I checked. 

I happily acknowledge that previous direct experience is required for many jobs. The issue as I see is that in 2020 the only jobs that exist are the ones for people already within the industry. For an employer this makes sense as a less experienced hire brings a higher degree of risk. I finished my PhD in May 2020, and after some considerable effort I was able to find professional engineering employment in July 2020. Two and a half months later I and some colleagues were made redundant - last-in first-out. Meaning, it has been a tough year even for those who are already within the industry. 

So I know first-hand that there is plenty of difficulty and risk for many companies who want to make opportunities available. Despite the short-term risk reduction, however I also worry that this hiring freeze will lead to a generation of engineers being turned away and moving to other career paths. I’m strongly considering it although I’ve been working towards a job in engineering for eight years. I also can’t help but feel that an erosion of the acceptance of ‘transferable skills’ in favour only of direct experience will lead to the talent pool becoming more brittle, and for my own sake I have to hope this attitude doesn’t run too deep or graduates like myself will remain locked out indefinitely. 

Considering this I currently have three goals for myself:

  1. Maintain direct goals that I can actively work towards - In the absence of a job, my biggest enemy has been my own lack of motivation. I have lost entire weeks to this monolith. It’s an uphill battle, but each project I undertake with a clear endpoint has helped me commit to something productive, and each small success has motivated me to keep trying a little bit longer.
  2. Keep to a routine - This year has been out of the ordinary for everyone and for many people (myself included) this has broken down the routines that help structure the day-to-day. In the absence of a job it is very easy to let the days blur together. Anything you can do to add structure to your day or week is a success. I have found that if I can commit to something significantly ahead of time I find it easier to achieve. If I decide if I want to exercise five minutes ahead of time I usually will pick not to. By committing myself to certain times every week I remove the momentary decision and am far more likely to stick to the positive routine.
  3. Keep applying - This may seem obvious but on reflection I have been trying less and less to find work as the year has dragged on. While it does feel like an unpleasant chore, there is no path to employment that doesn’t involve this step. While to me it may be Application No. 105, to the person reading it is Application No. 1. I have to keep putting the hours in and eventually I will find the employer who decides to take me on.

I am mindful that it is useful to reflect on my own position, and the position of others. While my situation is challenging, I am by no means alone. There are first year engineering students who are socially isolated and stranded away from family and friends at home with remote learning. People have been displaced from their jobs. Empathy is surely a crucial part of the path to recovery.  

Contributor: Becan Lawless has a First Class Honours Master’s degree and a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Manchester

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How competent are you?

Graham Watts OBE
Chief Executive
Construction Industry Council

Is our industry fit to make buildings that people are safe to live in? I have worked in construction for 40 years and for all but the last three of those, I would have scoffed at the question. But, since the Grenfell Tower tragedy, I share the concern of hundreds of thousands of residents in high-rise residential towers across the country who no longer feel safe in their beds.

The evidence that has been given to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry in recent weeks has revealed an industry that was complacent and seemingly unaware of crucial safety issues. It has also typified the industry’s broken business model, which has encouraged a careless race to the bottom in terms of winning work and one that has gone unchecked by a building regulatory regime that stops well short of control. The Grenfell Tower fire has brought all of this into the sharpest focus but there have been many other failures in fire and structural safety that have thankfully not had a tragic outcome.

While the industry must take responsibility for its own failings, recent governments are also culpable. An obsession with deregulation that stretches back 40 years had its apotheosis with the coalition government and its bonfire of the quangos (the nascent National Tenant Voice and The National Housing and Planning Advice Unit organisation were among 106 abolished bodies). The rampant pursuit of deregulation has progressively emasculated the building control profession. In my dealings with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government prior to Grenfell, the officials responsible for building regulations were metaphorically side-lined to a broom cupboard somewhere in the basement. Building safety was never discussed in meetings. Complacency ruled everywhere.

In reaction to Grenfell, the government has created and progressively enhanced a building safety programme over the past three years, populated by public servants who genuinely care about eradicating unsafe materials on buildings and, spurred on by the reforming zeal of Dame Judith Hackitt, we are at the cusp of a radical new regime to govern building safety as signposted in the draft Building Safety Bill, published in late July and currently subject to pre-legislative scrutiny.

It is clear that competence for working on higher-risk buildings has been lacking across the construction industry, the fire safety sector and among those who own and manage these buildings and this failing was properly identified by Dame Judith in her seminal report Building A Safer Future. It is a challenge that has been accepted by all these sectors with over 150 organisations forming an alliance, the Competence Steering Group, the extent of which has never previously been seen, with a collective aim to develop a new framework of competences for those engaged in designing, constructing and managing higher-risk buildings. This covers engineers (including fire engineers), installers, fire risk assessors, the fire and rescue service , building control surveyors, building designers (including architects), building safety managers, site supervisors, project managers, procurement officers and those engaged in the product manufacturing sector.

It has been my privilege to chair this group for the past three years and our final report, Setting the Bar, was published today (5 October). It sets out the competence requirements for all these roles and recommends the development of a suite of national standards to underpin this work, specifically for the key dutyholder roles of Principal Designer, Principal Contractor and Building Safety Manager. The latter function is entirely new and so the CSG has created a blueprint for this new profession in an aligned report (published simultaneously) entitled Safer People, Safer Homes: Building Safety Management.

In this instance, the CSG is in the enviable position of publishing a report with recommendations that have already been adopted because the BSI has started the process of creating the Built Environment Competence Standards; and the draft Building Safety Bill is proposing the establishment of a Competence Committee within the Building Safety Regulator.

Setting the Bar is just the end of the beginning to create a robust system that requires enhanced competences for working on, and in, higher-risk buildings. It is now down to the industry to develop the means of acquiring and evidencing those competences and every sector should be doing that now; not waiting two more years for the legislation to pass. It is also incumbent on the government and the new regulator, which we know will be housed within the HSE (and I welcome that decision), to create the arrangements that will require all those working on higher-risk buildings to be appropriately competent to do so.

At present, the draft bill proposes to leave that checking to the dutyholders. I worry that will encourage a blurring of the robustness required with “grandfather rights” and so-called “equivalent” credentials being offered to undermine the strength of the regime. The CSG would much prefer to see a more transparent and tangible registration process, the more statutory, the better, which anyone (residents included) can check.

Setting the Bar is just one small step towards rebuilding public trust in our industry. Improving the safety of those living in higher-risk buildings is just a start. It is in everyone’s interests to continue that journey to make every building safe and for everyone to feel safe inside them.

Contributor: Graham Watts is the Chief Executive of the Construction Industry Council, a Member of the MHCLG Industry Response Group and Chair of its Competence Steering Group.  

This was orginally published in Building Magazine 

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Planning for the future: challenges of introducing a new Infrastructure Levy need to be addressed

Tony Crook, Emeritus Professor of Town & Regional Planning, The University of Sheffield

John Henneberry, Professor of Property Development Studies, The University of Sheffield

Christine Whitehead is Emeritus Professor of Housing Economics, London School of Economics

In this blog Prof Tony CrookProf John Henneberry and Prof Christine Whitehead share their initial reactions to the government’s proposed reform to the planning system in England and warn that the new system could potentially turn out to be as complex as the current one and risk delaying urgently needed new homes.

The government is proposing a fundamental reform in England to a system that has evolved step-by-step over many decades and which has managed to raise significant funds for infrastructure and affordable housing – £7bn agreed with local planning authorities via S106 and CIL in 2018-19.

This note sets out some of our initial impressions. The consultation is now underway and many of the obvious concerns may well be addressed in the final design of the proposed new system. We hope so because the one thing we do not want is a reform which slows development and takes years to settle in as was the case when fundamental changes were made to the current system in 1990 (S106) and 2007 (CIL).

The government’s core objectives, that are easy to support, are to reduce complexity by moving from a discretionary to a rules-based system and to ensure local community agreement. The most important mechanisms by which these are to be achieved include:

  • replacing the current individual planning permission system with three predetermined zones (growth, renewal and protection) together with planning in principle or presumption in favour of development for individual sites in the first two zones;
  • replacing the current mixed negotiation and tariff system where developer contributions are determined at the local level with a nationally fixed and mandatory levy; and
  • basing that levy on the projected gross development value from each site and enabling the local authority to borrow against the identified sum to provide necessary infrastructure and affordable housing.

The policy paper/consultation document concentrates on the vision of what the new planning system framework will look like and what it can be expected to deliver – but almost inherently provides limited detail on exactly how that vision will be fulfilled and how the transition is to be managed.

A second consultation paper, which has had relatively little coverage, answers some of these questions. It sets out how housing numbers at the local level will be determined centrally; how the First Homes policy, which is to be prioritised in the delivery of affordable homes, will be introduced; how S106 affordable housing requirements will be reduced on sites up to 50 units, and extends the Permission in Principle regime to larger sites. New Permitted Development Rights also came into force on August 1st and a new conflated Use Order is in train. Some of these powers can be further extended through statutory instruments.

Instead of further developing the existing system (as modified), the government wants to move from the current approach to developer contributions, whereby developers are expected to contribute to the costs of infrastructure related to their developments (so as to make the development acceptable in planning terms) and to the provision of new affordable homes to one based on taxing the market value of the approved development directly.

The government’s preferred option is a mandatory Infrastructure Levy (IL) on the market value of all new developments with the tax rate fixed nationally (shades of Planning Gain Supplement?), but collected and used locally. Apart from a lower value threshold (below which no levy will be liable) to avoid the IL threatening development viability in weak markets, there will be limited exceptions for custom and self-build and permitted development will be liable for the levy (unlike the case with S106).

In both cases, the costs/levy charged to the developer is expected to be passed on to the landowner. Under S106 and CIL this is an indirect consequence of requiring developers to meet specific costs not an explicit tax on land value. Under the new system, we are to move to a direct tax on the value of completed development, paid by the developer at the point of occupation with the expected value of the levy determined at planning permission. This contrasts with previous tax-based attempts to capture land value (TCPA 1947; Land Commission Act, Community Land Act, 1975) that focused on taxing land development value not gross development value and were paid by landowners. The government’s expectation is that the new approach will produce more tax than the current S106/CIL system and so land values should, in principle, decline more compared with the current position.

The value of the levy on an individual site will be agreed at permission based on expected values but paid when the completed development is occupied. Planning authorities will be able to borrow against the agreed sums, presumably so that infrastructure can be paid for and completed as development proceeds. Hence new school places (for example), could be completed in good time for the new residents to move into new homes. Developers of housing sites above a threshold will be required to contribute to new affordable homes and provide them on-site (although commuted payments will be possible – as now). The costs they incur in providing affordable homes will be netted off from their final levy payment to the local planning authority.

All of this has the potential to be an improvement on the current system, cutting down on the uncertainty and drawn-out negotiations and potentially raising more money because it relates to the value of the development, not to the cost of required contributions. But no evidence is provided on the likely take.

So what is not to like?

There are going to be several challenges all of which need to be widely addressed and debated during the consultation period. Our initial list includes:

  • The issue of viability has not gone away but simply relates to the scale of the levy. Indeed, it is the justification for specifying a value threshold below which the levy will not be charged. But the national levy will not take account of the wide range of site-specific circumstances, especially if the costs increase and the value of completed development turns out to be less than projected at planning consent thus depressing developer margins. This is likely to produce many exceptions to the ‘national average’ rule. The government’s suggestion if this happens is to ‘flip’ from affordable to market homes to fund the levy income required; hence the affordable element will take the risk of market volatility.
  • Fixing the levy percentage will be complicated and subject to a great deal of political pressure: too low and not enough will be collected; too high and development will not proceed (especially if landowners withhold sites because the levy impost presses down too much on land prices); lessons from the three post-war attempts to tax development values are not encouraging.
  • A national rate and the value threshold have consequences for regional imbalances (remember the levelling up agenda?). Since the values of completed developments are much greater in London and the southern regions of England than elsewhere, LPAs in these areas will have greater capacity to benefit and fund their infrastructure needs including schools, doctors’ surgeries, highways and to ensure biodiversity net gain is realised in addition to securing new affordable homes. All of these will be more difficult to secure elsewhere.
  • The first call on levy proceeds is to be affordable housing because the costs of the affordable provision are to be netted off from the levy payment. What is ‘leftover’ will be used for all of the infrastructure required but this ‘residual’ may not be sufficient to pay for all that is needed. The government states that it expects at least the same numbers of new affordable homes to be provided and in the transition, the proportions of new affordable homes on new developments (including the new First Homes) will remain as of now in each local planning authority (but with First Homes taking priority). However, in practice LPAs may find themselves juggling between affordable homes and infrastructure in deciding what the levy can fund, as they do now with S106 and CIL.
  • If LPAs borrow against future levy receipts in order to ensure infrastructures goes into sites when needed, this will reduce what is available to spend from the levy as interest charges will be incurred. This is made worse for development projects with a long time scale when inflation on costs will bite into what can be funded by the levy value agreed at permission.
  • The government suggests retaining cost-based Mayoral CILs but this risks returning complexity to the system and any such levies will need to be fixed in ways that take account of the new levy (and vice versa).

Our initial reactions suggest the proposed new system could potentially turn out to be as complex as the current S106 and CIL systems with much potential for the kind of challenges, on legal and valuation grounds, which beset the three post-war attempts to tax land development values directly. In addition, the new system will take time to introduce and bed in whilst the transitional arrangements for affordable housing and First Homes have the capacity to reduce affordable output. Meantime landowners and land promoters will be pondering on the implications of what is proposed for the value of their land and whether or not to put it on the market and bring it forward for development by seeking planning consent under the current and proposed systems. These proposals risk delaying urgently needed new homes not the least at this time of recession when homebuilders are working hard to get new homes built.

Contributors: Tony Crook is Emeritus Professor of Town & Regional Planning, The University of Sheffield. John Henneberry, Professor of Property Development Studies, The University of Sheffield. Christine Whitehead is Emeritus Professor of Housing Economics, London School of Economics.

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Toilet talk 2

Kevin Wellman
CEO
Chartered Institute of Plumbing & Heating Engineering (CIPHE)

In 2019 (remember then, an innocent time?) I wrote a piece on the run up to World Toilet Day, inspired by the CIPHE’s Love your local lav campaign. Back then things seemed dire, with the steady de-funding and closure of public lavatories affecting swathes of our society, particularly women, young families, the elderly, the disabled and those with medical conditions.

My argument was that public toilets are a necessity and not a luxury, providing dignity, independence and safety. Importantly, provision of these facilities strengthened the local economy by increasing footfall. Most of all, they greatly enhanced people’s confidence and wellbeing. Further, that public toilets allowed some of the most vulnerable in society, plus those with young children and medical conditions, the freedom to leave their homes and undertake everyday tasks, without the fear and indignity of being caught short.

That was in a pre Covid-19 world and those arguments are only reinforced by recent experience, with the need for public facilities having never been so apparent.

Public toilets and Covid-19

We’ve all now had a taste of what isolation at home feels like and for many of us it has been a challenging experience. Empathy with those who find themselves in this position, simply down to a lack of public toilets, is surely so much easier to find.

Simply following official public health advice means frequent hand washing is a high priority for keeping everyone safe from coronavirus. Add to this a fragile economy and a drive to get the public spending money on the High Street again, and the argument for councils to provide much needed public lavatories rings clear.  

When lockdown restrictions first began to lift, those of us re-emerging from homes to visit shops, pubs, restaurants and local tourist hot spots, found ourselves hitting toilet troubles when nature called. With a large number of public toilets closed, the scarcity of accessible, clean and hygienic lavatories led to widespread reports of people urinating and even defecating in public.

While some facilities have started to reopen, a lack of provision to enable safe toileting and frequent hand washing, highlights a grave public health issue. This is why closing toilets down must not be considered a cheap and easy option. Of course, a lack of loos impacts an already struggling economy too, as people hitting the high streets inevitably limit their time away from home.

The sad truth is that, following on from decades of underinvestment, this was all so predictable. According to the British Toilet Association, pre-lockdown councils in England had on average 15 operational public toilets per 12,500 people. The BBC also found that at least 673 public toilets across the UK have ceased to be maintained by major councils since 2010. 

Worryingly, some high street and tourist destinations now have no operational public toilets at all, previously relying upon good-natured local businesses to open their toilets to the public. However, with coronavirus restrictions in place, companies are far less likely to admit non-customers, especially when facing management of social distancing regulations and restrictions on how many can come through the doors.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of society and the need for citizens to act collectively for the good of others. Amongst many things to be learned from this experience, I hope that government at national and local levels will change its approach to public services and facilities, not least of all the good old-fashioned toilet.

Flip ‘n’ flush

Toilets also hit the headlines during lockdown as new research was released looking into the spread of coronavirus, germs and other nasties via toilet plume.

While it has been generally accepted that toilet plume - tiny droplets and aerosol particles released into the air due to turbulence caused by flushing - offered a small risk of transmission of illnesses, it was always thought that for the healthy and those with good hygiene, it would pose few problems. Then coronavirus struck.

According to current evidence, coronavirus is primarily transmitted between people through respiratory droplets and contact routes. Airborne transmission is possible via aerosols, as is faecal–oral transmission. New research by Yun-yun Li, Ji-Xiang Wang and Xi Chen, Can a toilet promote virus transmission? From a fluid dynamics perspective, warned that 40-60% of toilet plume particles could reach to a height of 106.5 cm above the ground - well in excess of the height of a toilet seat - enabling the spread of particles on nearby surfaces. During computer simulations, particles could also stay suspended in the air long enough to be breathed in post-flushing.

While a proven case of transmission of the virus via the risk identified in the research is still to be established, we should take all measures available to help stop the spread of coronavirus and other illnesses such as staphylococcus and E. coli. That’s why the CIPHE launched its flip ‘n’ flush campaign, urging everyone to close the toilet lid before flushing, to remove any associated danger of toilet plume. Needless to say, this should always be backed up by vigorous hand washing routine. Those wanting to be ultra-careful, can also then clean the toilet seat before it is used to further reduce the risk of potential infection.

Changing Places

Buried in the Covid-19 news cycle, there has been some good news. Disability rights campaigners have been celebrating changes to the Building Regulations, as Changing Places toilets for severely disabled people become compulsory in new public buildings in England from next year. Additionally, a £30 million fund will be opened to install Changing Places toilets in existing buildings, while the Department for Transport, in partnership with Muscular Dystrophy UK, has also announced £1.27 million to install 37 more Changing Places at service stations across England.

The new facilities will join the existing 1400 Changing Places across the UK, creating larger accessible toilets, (12m2) for severely disabled people, that include equipment such as hoists, curtains, adult-sized changing benches and space for carers.

It is hoped the amendment to the Regulations will help 250,000 people by adding truly accessible toilets to more than 150 buildings a year in England, including supermarkets, shopping centres, stadiums, cinemas and arts venues.

This is a real win for the disability community, with regulatory changes that will aid some of the most vulnerable in our society. Those with disabilities should not have to battle to find facilities that enable them to leave the house with dignity. It is encouraging to see the Government is committed to acting swiftly on this issue.

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Making Buildings Safer

Graham Watts OBE
Chief Executive
Construction Industry Council

I have heard some commentators say that the government’s 331-page draft Building Safety Bill is insufficiently detailed (because it awaits secondary legislation) while others have argued that there is too much detail proposed for the primary legislation, which will then be difficult to amend once enacted.   The balance between primary and secondary legislation needs to be carefully considered to ensure that there are no delays with these much-needed reforms.

The draft bill expands upon the scope proposed by Dame Judith Hackitt in Building A Safer Future by bringing the height of the multi-occupied buildings to be covered by the new Building Safety Regulator down from 30m to 18m (or six storeys, whichever height is reached first).  It seems clear that the intention is for this to be an achievable beginning.  Once embedded, we can expect the new regulatory regime to be extended to multi-occupied dwellings, perhaps down to 11m; and possibly to other buildings, lower in height, in which vulnerable people sleep.

As Dame Judith argued - and as the Grenfell Tower Inquiry has shown - improved competence is essential to the achievement of buildings that are safe and in which residents feel safe.   It is has been my privilege  to chair the Competence Steering Group, an alliance of more than 150 organisations across all sectors concerned with fire and structural safety and the ownership and management of higher-risk residential buildings, which has recently published its final report, Setting the Bar, establishing an overarching competence framework underpinned by detailed competence specifications across twelve occupational sectors (such as Fire Engineers, Installers, Fire Risk Assessors) accompanied by a detailed implementation plan and around sixty recommendations to achieve change. 

This works faces back into the sectors where the changes must happen; and also as a benchmark for the new committee on competence, to be established by the Building Safety Regulator, which is to hold the industry to account.   It is essential that this does not just mean the “best getting better” and that the age-old culture of “race to the bottom” is not still enabled by a lack of teeth in the final legislation.   There must be no backdoor ways into persuading dutyholders of the competence of those that they engage.

The draft bill’s proposal to establish six dutyholders is a big step forward to counteract a “pass the buck” mentality but the devil will be in the detail and this will need to be carefully monitored in the primary and secondary legislation.  Although not intended as a dutyholder (since that role will be occupied by the “Accountable Person”), the new regulated role of Building Safety Manager creates an entirely new profession and the CSG has published a second report, alongside Setting the Bar, entitled Safer People, Safer Homes: Building Safety Management.  This is an essential blueprint to the context, role and responsibilities of the BSM.  There are several factors that will need to be addressed in order to transition to the new regime and the availability of sufficient competent people to fulfil the necessary role of the BSM on every building in scope to the new legislation will be key.

Three years after the Grenfell tragedy, people are right to continually question what is being done to make sure such a dreadful conflagration never reoccurs.  It has been a long and difficult journey and many decisions have been arrived at too late (not least in government support to remediate ACM and similar cladding on existing buildings) but the beginning of a new safer regime for buildings is now before us and it has to be grasped and pursued with vigour by everyone who can make a difference.

Contributor: Graham Watts is the Chief Executive of the Construction Industry Council, a Member of the MHCLG Industry Response Group and Chair of its Competence Steering Group.  

This article was orginally published in FIRE Magazine

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Talent Retention in a Covid-19 Economy

Gordon Masterton OBE DL 
Gordon is a Past Chairman of CIC and now the Master of the Worshipful Company of Engineers.
This article first featured on the Worshipful Company of Engineers website on 06/08/20.

 

Covid-19 will rebalance the job market, but…
As we slowly emerge from total lockdown, businesses are assessing the impact on their employment needs in the Covid-19 economy. For some, that has meant redundancies have been announced, never a pleasant step to take for an employer but devastating for an employee. Some will take the opportunity to gain new skills and re-enter the job market; others will find a new employer with a stronger order book, or with the companies that find they are better aligned to a Covid economy. In the long run, the adjustments will rebalance the pattern of work. But meantime we are continuing to have school-leavers and graduates entering the job market for the first time – and what a time.

…new entrants are still essential, but…
But whilst it is difficult for firms to balance the hiring of new staff at a time when redundancies are being managed, and HR departments are overstretched, experience has shown that those firms who press the pause button on recruiting their graduate and apprentice cohorts will suffer as the gap in their employee profile creates difficulties in succession planning in years to come.

…some companies are short-sighted
Firms should also think carefully about the impact on young and impressionable people if they renege on offers of employment already made. This practice is happening now, and whilst it may be legally defensible, it is highly questionable ethically. Imagine the impact on a young graduate after four or five years of study, who has secured a job six months ago, perhaps moved to the new location ready to start, and then receives the bad news a month before the start date. Their trust in the industry and career path they had set their hearts on has been destroyed.

Another questionable practice is also emerging – deferring the start date of those who already have job offers and contracts of employment, with no specific revised starting date. This sends a signal that the company is arrogant enough to believe that the graduate will still join them despite being told to pay their own way through life for an unspecified period. For the sake of a few months’ (presumably) savings of a graduate salary, the damage done to that young individual will be long-lasting, and any loyalty to the company has been blown away. Perhaps that is the intent and they hope the graduate goes elsewhere despite the signed contract of employment. If that is the hidden agenda, it is even more ethically reprehensible.

We need to take the long view
Setting aside the personal impact, the long-term losers in these scenarios are the companies concerned. Word will filter back to potential recruits in future years – student communication networks are powerful. Those at the wrong end of such behaviour may use social media to share their experience, and who would blame them? And the most important loss to the company is the loss of their next generation of leaders.

These policies where applied, unthinkingly, are across the board – so all the hard work to get gender and ethnic minority balance into the recruitment of young engineers is also undermined at a stroke.

A few days ago, the government and Construction Leadership Council launched the Construction Talent Retention Scheme to try to place as many displaced persons in this turmoil. That’s commendable, but let’s not forget the graduates and apprentices who thought they had a place, only to be let down by their employer before even getting a chance to show their worth.

So, my plea to employers is to honour your commitments, play fair by your young future leaders, and take the long view for your own benefit. We are in fragile times. The last thing we need is disaffection and disillusionment in our 2020 graduates and apprentices, the very groups we need to be the most motivated to create a better future.

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Driving construction forward with tech & standards

Newly appointed deputy chair of the Construction Industry Council, Justin Sullivan, talks about how he intends to lead the body forward, and his vision for the future of the construction sector

Last year the construction sector contributed £117bn to the UK economy, which equated to six per cent of total economic output. The sector provided 2.4m jobs – seven per cent of the UK total – and accounted for 13 per cent of total UK businesses. There is no doubt about it; our industry is vital to the fiscal health of the country and will be instrumental to the national recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the newly appointed deputy chair of the Construction Industry Council (CIC), how we move forward is at the forefront of my mind. There are going to be changes to the way we work, including de-risking projects, how we work on site, and supply chain structures possibly moving from a global to a more local model. Of course, Brexit adds another level of complexity to this, and it remains to be seen how product manufacturing and procurement will be impacted.

The UK construction industry, both as its own entity and as part of global construction, will undoubtedly face a series of tests in the coming years, but the spirit with which we have approached challenges over the past few months is proof that we are up to the task. The most obvious example is the building of the Nightingale hospitals – collaboration across the industry allowed for an agility and speed which meant we could assist our country in a time of grave need.

As wonderful as this is, the truth is that the pandemic has acted as catalyst for changes the industry has needed to make for a long time now. For at least the past decade we’ve been talking about the technological disruption that’s set to transform our industry, improve efficiency, productivity and outcomes, yet it has yet to break through to the mainstream. We’re not using BIM to its maximum potential like Singapore and Norway for example, whose construction industries are more efficient and productive. Most of us are still limited to using Excel and PDFs as basic data input and output formats, rather than more advanced, bespoke tools.

I very much see my four-year term with the CIC – one year as deputy chair and two years as chair, before returning to deputy chair for the final year – as preparing the Council for what the industry will look like in four years’ time. For me, technology is one of the two things we need to get right in order to move forward. As our use of BIM develops, for example, contractors will take the lead more in the construction process, and the procurement process will be more upfront. This will allow for more collaboration and less of the adversarial, siloed experience that currently exists.

The other aspect that must move forward is standards and consistency. By that I don’t mean the specific standards or guidance provided by individual bodies, but rather higher-levels of professionalism across an industry that provide consistency and in turn breed public confidence.

 

Success through collaboration

The CIC provides a voice for professionals in all sectors of the built environment including approximately 500,000 individual professionals and more than 25,000 construction firms. We are defined as ‘the only single body able to speak with authority on the diverse issues connected with construction without being constrained by the self-interest of any particular sector of the industry’. We are therefore, by our very nature, a collaborative organisation. We have an opportunity – and a duty – to set the example for collaboration across the industry between professionals, firms, bodies, and government.

As a UK organisation, we also have an opportunity to collaborate across jurisdictions and regions. Although the pandemic increased border restrictions, our industry is now more global than ever. We need to work with our international colleagues to encourage high standards and share knowledge and best practice.

As the borders rose over the past few months, so did human kindness and compassion – something which I believe we need more of in our industry. Greater importance needs to be placed how we do things, rather than simply getting a project over the finish line: that means respecting other professionals and acting with humility and courtesy.

It’s in this spirit of human kindness that I intend to lead the CIC. I will listen to members, learn about their experiences and their needs, and identify common themes. I intend to draw on all of my industry experience – whether that be running my own business, working internationally, leading RICS boards or being one of the trustees of the International Construction Measurement Standards Coalition – and lead with credibility.

There is a long road ahead, but we have every reason to feel positive about the future of our industry given what it has achieved in the past few months. Let’s use these next four years to build on those achievements and ensure lasting positive transformation.

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IFC Smoke Control Design & Installer UKAS Scheme

Allan K Hurdle
Owner and CEO, AKH Services Ltd
Consultant, Smoke Control Association

Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy and the points raised under the Dame Judith Hackitt review covering compliance and competence with independently tested products, the IFC scheme was developed with the Smoke Control Association (SCA). Developed to raise the importance of smoke control and the use of the EN/BSI and ISO standards, utilizing SCA guides for fire safety in buildings alongside that of sprinklers. The IFC SDI 19 scheme is the first smoke control scheme accredited to UKAS.

The SCA took it upon itself to review its own association’s structure, to be proactive in identifying competence and compliance, and to develop a scheme that design and install members would follow.

Recognising the industry’s shortfalls, the SCA is working hard to raise standards and improve levels of competency. The IFC together with the SCA came up with a scheme to raise the bar for its organisation and members.

It is apparent that smoke control and clearance within a building is as important as dampening down a fire by means of sprinklers. It should be part of the lifesaving package of systems for residents and the fire service.

All SCA members understand and work to standards applicable to their areas of expertise.

These areas cover system design, product manufacture, product testing, installation procedures and system sign off, with a Declaration of Performance (DoP) supported by all relevant certificates of conformance.

Following the Dame Judith Hackitt report and recommendations, competence and compliance is the bedrock of any SCA fire engineered systen and is the back bone of the IFC Scheme for SCA members involved in smoke control system installation.

There are now 39 companies signed up to the scheme with more applying.

The IFC SDI 19 certification scheme was developed with smoke control in mind and now designers and installers, who are members of the SCA and install smoke control systems, are required to apply for and receive accreditation to the scheme as a condition of membership.

Failure to register means members will not be allowed to continue with their membership.

Companies choosing smoke control designers and installers should feel confident in these companies who are registered with a recognized competence and compliant scheme.

The term installation within the SCA is deemed to include the fire engineered strategy with system sign off of the design process, which is signed off as work proceeds.

A well-designed smoke control system can save lives, help protect property and reduce insurance costs.

With the Coronavirus pandemic that has created the building industry lock down, it is more important than ever that there is not another “race to the bottom” on price, with non-compliant smoke control products being fitted by non-competent installers. Too many times have we seen the commercial needs of a business outweighing building safety.

SCA membership gives confidence to building owners in the right design, with the right independently tested products, correctly installed and signed off in line with the IFC certification process. 

The SCA is now carrying out a series of free webinars for consultants, contractors and installers on the IFC scheme.  If you are interested in attending one of the events then please contact the SCA.

Please visit www.smokecontrol.org.uk for more detail on dates and times.

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Construction has never been so important

Graham Watts
Chief Executive
Construction Industry Council

Note: This comment piece was published in Building magazine on 1st May 2020 

 

Like everyone else, all those working within the construction industry are facing uniquely challenging times during this age of coronavirus.  The government’s call for construction sites to remain open, echoed loudly by the Construction Leadership Council (CLC), has been diluted by contrary positions in Scotland and Northern Ireland (where construction policy is a devolved responsibility) and by the unhelpful interventions of the Mayor of London (where clearly it is not).  Hindered by this uncertainty, the government’s consistent message of construction work continuing, which many feel has come across as a whisper in the face of so many competing priorities, has been loudly shouted down by the media and the court of public opinion.   

The impact of this is that Barbour ABI covid-19 research, published on 17th April, showed that the number of construction projects delayed continued to increase (more than 4,500 projects were stalled - up 200 from the week previously - having a value of over £70bn, up by £2.4bn over that week).  A Eureka Research report, published on the same day, measuring the impact of covid-19 on the plumbing and heating sector, found that it was operating at 13% of normal capacity and that each day of the lockdown equates to £47m of lost business (so far amounting to £1.1bn and counting).  The housebuilding sector was virtually at a standstill and builders’ merchants were reportedly operating at about 10% capacity.  The age of coronavirus has tunnelled a gaping hole through the industry, as it has through the entire global economy.  

Despite all of this, some sites have continued and others have reopened since those figures were published – according to the Barbour ABI research, infrastructure and, unsurprisingly, medical facilities are accounting for the majority of ongoing construction work.  It was, of course, the construction industry that transformed major exhibition centres into huge hospital wards (the NHS Nightingale Birmingham was delivered in 7 days; the Scottish Events Campus was also turned into the NHS Louisa Jordan in just a week).  The NHS and social care workers are on the front line but if that wartime analogy is continued it is construction that is backing up these vital services, akin to the Royal Engineers, building vital logistical and infrastructural support.   Although emergency call-outs in plumbing and heating  were only at 50% capacity, it is plumbers, heating and gas engineers, electricians and other tradesfolk that are braving the risk of infection (often without adequate PPE) to fix emergencies in people’s homes during this lockdown. 

It is, of course, essential that any construction activity can take place safely, in accordance with Public Health England guidelines and the Site Operating Procedures that have been published by the CLC (version 3 was published on 14th April).  To help understand how to work safely, the Construction Industry Council has adopted a short, explanatory digital film, produced by Langley Waterproofing Systems Ltd, which is available to view on the CIC website: another example of industry collaboration in these challenging times.  

It is a regrettable but undeniable fact that many companies will cease to trade as a result of this crisis (the early months of the recovery will be especially dangerous for the supply chain with cashflow dangers inherent in getting back to work with 60-day payment terms) and many people will lose jobs (and apprenticeships) in an industry that will count itself very fortunate to shrink by only 10%.  Under the leadership of Andy Mitchell and Mark Reynolds, the CLC has really stepped up to the plate during this crisis, collaborating with the other major industry bodies – such as the CIC, Construction Products Association and Build UK –to provide strong market intelligence and advocacy reaching into the heart of government on a daily basis.  The CLC is working up a strong and robust programme of policies that will support the recovery and get the industry back to better health as quickly as possible.   And, even more importantly, government is listening with key civil servants attending the daily conference calls, alongside regular sessions with the construction minister, Nadim Zahawi MP.          

In a recent radio phone-in, a listener asked, with some sarcasm, if building warehouses was considered to be essential work.  Leaving aside the fact that no construction work can be carried out at home and therefore the issue of ‘essential work’ does not apply, it was ironic that another caller on the same programme raised serious concerns about food shortages and the lack of opportunity for people to receive online shopping deliveries.  No-one, least of all the radio presenter, seemed to recognise the irony in that juxtaposition of complaints.  A huge market increase in online deliveries requires a comparable expansion of warehouse space and how is that delivered?  In this, as in so much else, it is the construction industry that is proud to help!

© Graham Watts OBE

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Why aren’t construction sites closing?

Graham Watts
Chief Executive
Construction Industry Council

 

This is a very complex issue, which accounts for the mixed messages coming from government in recent days (eg Nicola Sturgeon calling for sites to close and Michael Gove and Robert Jenrick arguing that they should remain open).

 

In the absence of firm advice, some construction companies are taking matters into their own hands and closing for the foreseeable future (Taylor Wimpey, Galliard, Travis Perkins) or until there is more clarity (Saint Gobain).   It is currently a matter of mess and muddle. 

It would be incredibly dangerous for all construction sites to close; but it is also incredibly dangerous for all construction sites to remain open.   It is not an issue with a binary solution.

 

Below is a non-exhaustive list of critical activity that ought to continue for issues of public safety:

  1. Make good unsafe buildings/dangerous structures –District Surveyors need powers to instruct emergency work to be done to make them safe if any occur – and a hastily abandoned site might just lead to a dangerous structure occurring.
  2. Structural inspections for subsidence / movement to determine risk
  3. Structural and roofing problems, loose tiles/chimney stacks, weathering
  4. All general building control work (both LABC and AIs) for nationally important buildings / facilities, e.g. NHS estate, GPs, etc.  
  5. Drainage works / maintenance etc – important to avoid any increased public health problems in this respect
  6. Fire safety inspections
  7. Requirement for maintenance of fire protection systems and equipment to meet Fire Safety legislation – even if buildings are not occupied.
  8. Ongoing need for Fire risk assessments, both to meet legislation and new circumstances in buildings.
  9. Remedial work required to remove unsafe ACM cladding etc.
  10. Glazing replacement
  11. Locksmithing / lock replacement
  12. Gas safety work/ Suspected gas leaks
  13. Electrical safety work/ Electrical failures
  14. Flood remediation (especially to homes hit by recent floods)
  15. Plumbing and heating failures including loss of heating/condensation problems/hot water services
  16. Emergency Leaking/ flooding
  17. Health risks associated with blocked drainage/sewerage systems
  18. Water companies – remedial / emergency work to buildings and assets that are crucial to the supply of clean water,
  19. New or business/safety critical maintenance work on establishments which are involved in supply chain of vital NHS equipment (for example where manufacturers are building units to make ventilators),
  20. Factories that are making anything required to combat the virus (e.g. a new hand sanitiser factory is under construction);
  21. Food supply chain – essential new builds or maintenance on existing buildings
  22. Extra warehouse space for food distribution by online platforms (to cope with massively increased demand)
  23. New or business/safety critical maintenance work on establishments which are involved in supply of medicines,
  24. Essential maintenance on morgues, funeral parlours, and crematoriums
  25. Essential maintenance and remediation across the health sector
  26. Installation/maintenance technicians providing services to key sectors – health, power etc?
  27. Emergency callouts, safety checks and essential work in care homes?
  28. Ongoing supervision and security measures.
  29. Sites where anti-terrorism considerations need to take precedence over other concerns – eg Palace of Westminster.
  30. Urgent works on emergency service properties other than health - police, fire, for example?
  31. Unsafe infrastructure – if a lorry strikes a bridge during the shutdown, for example, then work may be needed to make safe the affected structure.
  32. Bridge inspection and maintenance
  33. Dam inspection and maintenance
  34. Maintaining key national infrastructure: power stations and grid, motorways, railways, utilities etc.
  35. Repair and maintenance of telecommunications, energy waste and water  – these are vital to work from home
  36. R&D facilities, where related to vaccine development or virus treatment
  37. Work on factories that make materials that are vital to all elements on this list

There will be other safety-critical work that needs to be added to this list.

 

However, it is also clear that much construction work is NOT essential – such as office accommodation, leisure facilities, for example.

The most important message to government is to define what work is essential and what work is not essential (as they have done for retail outlets).

One of the imperatives for people to go to work is that so many construction workers are self-employed (construction has more self-employed and freelance workers than any other industry) and in the absence of any package of support comparable to the job retention scheme announced on Friday, workers will continue to risk their health by going to work on non-essential projects.  It is essential for government to address this issue urgently.

If construction sites remain open (and my argument is that they should only remain open if the work is critical) then construction work should only continue if:

  • it can be carried out under the guidance issued by Public Health England;
  • it can be undertaken without compromising safety and health;
  • it is carried out in accordance with the Site Operating Procedure published earlier today; and
  • workers can travel safely and responsibly to sites.   

There has to be a safety-first message in all of this.

Construction sites cannot just be left.   They need to be prepared for closure and left in a way that is safe and secure.   Work is being done today on guidance about how to shut down sites safely.

So, the bottom line is that construction sites should only remain open if they are critical and they meet these conditions.  If it is impossible to meet the 2m rule for example then they should not remain open unless it causes an unsafe or dangerous situation for them to close or the project is deemed to be critical to immediate societal need  and then this needs to be carefully managed and risk-assessed.

We are looking for clarity from government and a strong central message.   CIC is  working with government through the Construction Leadership Council to try to achieve this clarity.

 

©Graham Watts

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