In the words of the Prime Minister: “Build, build, build.” At least, that is the plan being mounted by Westminster to escape the looming recession. The economy hangs in the balance in the wake a global pandemic. Among radical reforms and record investment, the construction sector is being earmarked as the route to recovery for this generation. The aims are to help build better homes, improve public infrastructure, and concentrate the skills of the labour force.

But how can the rapid growth of the construction sector be achieved? Can it really help the UK economy survive the wounds of a discouraging year? Will the lessons of the pandemic, including sustainability and working arrangements, be sustained? Here, we explore how the construction sector is supporting the road to economic recovery.

Deregulation and reform

Construction output is valued at over £110 billion per annum in the UK. This contributes 7 per cent of GDP. However, regulations and waiting lists for planning permission are often cited as one of the main reasons why UK construction is being held back from its full potential.

To combat this, significant reforms are being implemented to jumpstart new business and the housing market. The main changes revolve around the repurposing of existing buildings, allowing greater flexibility to change the use class of properties. Reforms include:

  • Reform of the Use Classes Order, allowing commercial premises to change their use without planning permission. For example, a building used for retail could be permanently used as a café or office without approval from local authorities.
  • More commercial buildings can be converted for residential use without a planning application.
  • Redundant commercial and residential properties can be demolished without planning permission if they are rebuilt as residential properties.
  • A fast track for property owners to extend the space above their properties.

These measures are expected to come into effect by September, encouraging more residential and commercial property owners to undertake more construction work. However, the reforms to the construction sector do not only intend to bolster their workforce. It is intended that the construction sector will lead the recovery for other vital industries. Allowing commercial properties to change their use should, if all goes to plan, reinvigorate the high street that has been abandoned by the public in droves.

Training for the future

Of course, attention will be fixed on the monetary value that the construction sector can generate for the economy. But during the pandemic, and in establishing a recovery roadmap, it has become clear that there are fundamental skill shortfalls in the labour force. In this sense, retraining and further education for the construction sector are also vital for the overall recovery effort.

Apprenticeships have long been a priority for the government to drive employment where skill shortages have emerged. The construction sector is the third-largest contributor to apprenticeship schemes in England. Apprentices account for 18 workers for every 1,000 workers in the sector, falling short only compared to health/social work (19) and public administration (28).

Investment in the construction sector and apprenticeships would help to resolve skills shortages among young people; a generation that is regarded as one of the most disadvantaged as an effect of the pandemic.

Equally, retaining workers must be a priority. The Construction Talent Retention Scheme establishes the redeployment of workers at risk of redundancy, matching skills, talented workers, and opportunities across the UK. According to one survey of construction leaders in June 2020, 43 per cent of respondents anticipated having to make redundancies post-COVID. But there is potential that this number is reactionary, with anticipated work reduction for material suppliers and construction consultants. It’s clear that investment is needed to invigorate talent and increase the demand for work.

Green jobs for growth

Jobs are key for the economy. But can an investment in construction jobs also benefit the environment? The pandemic has only contributed to the growing awareness of our unsustainable lifestyles, with many businesses now integrating sustainable strategies as a priority within their operations.

This is crucial for the construction sector. The UK’s biggest consumer of natural resources is the construction industry, using 400 million tonnes of material every year and generating 100 million tonnes of waste. Avoiding waste and increasing sustainability is key to creating new green jobs and improving the construction sector.

But how can sustainability be ensured if construction is to experience rapid growth during the recovery? More sustainable processes are needed. Workers, including architects, engineers, and waste managers, should be able to work onsite alongside others to ensure that waste is reduced, and the local environment is taken into account at every site. This can easily be achieved through the use of storage containers used as offices, where workers can remain onsite in a reusable and mobile space. Ultimately, allowing green workers to have oversight during every step of construction can help. This ensures that the economic recovery is also a green recovery.

Through reforms, by prioritising sustainability, and reinvigorating the labour force, construction will be central to the economic recovery. Construction will lead other industries from the pandemic, allowing businesses to develop on their terms, creating more homes and commercial properties. Now is the time to begin building our way out of a potential recession.