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Industry must get in shape for infrastructure boom

Antony Oliver

Almost exactly five years ago this column kicked off with the prediction that “the next few years will be tough but if we are lean and effective, civil engineers are in good shape to ride the recession”.

Well there is little doubt that since then the recession has been tough - and continues to be in many cases. As the Office for National Statistics highlighted earlier this month, despite the recent signs of growth in the sector, construction output remains 14.7% below its pre-downturn 2008 peak.

So given the difficult times that the industry has been though over the last five years, it perhaps raises eyebrows to hear that contractors are already worried about their ability to cope with the upturn.

“We are moving with great rapidity from a period of famine to a period of feast and there is a big issue here as there is only so much bidding resource available,” warns the Civil Engineering Contractors Association this week in response to contractors’ concerns.

“Having ridden the recession for five years, the industry must now get in shape to recover, - be lean, effective and ready to take advantage of the opportunities”

Now I am sure that there is much truth in these concerns. You only have to look back at the way the industry has emerged from previous recessions to understand how years of cutbacks have so often caused an inability (or unwillingness) to invest in skills and staff. Sudden response when the tap is turned back on has historically been hard.

And it begs the question - do we never learn? Having lobbied hard for the last five years to remind government and investors of the huge value and return available from investment in construction and infrastructure, there can surely be little sympathy for contractors and a repeat of these cyclical problems.

Instead the industry should be embracing this welcome rush of opportunity as the Highways Agency gears up to deliver the UK’s long awaited sustained highway investment, the water and rail industries press forward with five year upgrade plans for their Victorian networks and clients like London Underground and Thames Water enhance their assets to meet growing demand.

Certainly clients must adopt best practice when it comes to procurement to ensure that the supply chain can best contribute ideas and create the most efficient and effective solutions. And that, of course, means putting in place strategies to ensure that bidders are not forced to unnecessarily incur bid costs.

But as we see with projects such as the Thames Tideway, High Speed 2, and many other long awaited schemes across the country, when the political, planning and financial stars suddenly align to give a green light, clients would be unwise to apply the brakes.

Quite the opposite. They must expect the industry to stand ready to accelerate.

So having ridden the recession for five years, the industry must now get in shape to recover, - be lean, effective and ready to take advantage of the opportunities that we hope will now continue to emerge. Surely no one would want it any other way.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor


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