Graeme Cooke of DEF Software discusses the fall in construction output, as the Office for National Statistics reports that construction output decreased by 40% in April compared with the previous year
This is not surprising given the lockdown in April, there was always going to be a significant fall that was to be expected. But before the industry panics, it is worth remembering that construction is the final output in the process.
Construction industry volatility is closely linked to the economy. If there is no confidence in the economy, people don’t want to borrow money and the construction industry remains depressed, there is hope, however. Planning applications only saw a fall of 20% in April compared to 2019 indicating that there is going to be improved construction output in the future.
We will also likely see a boost in home improvements such as extensions or refits, as the volume of householder type planning applications has remained steady during lockdown. This is in part down to people spending more time at home and part down to homeowners investing savings made during the lockdown period from cancelled travel and leisure plans into adding value to their property.
Are councils equipped to keep construction moving?
Now, with a reported growth of applications, every consideration must be taken to help boost the economy and restart the construction industry. A key factor in this will be local authorities doing their part to approve builds as quickly as possible, but are they properly equipped to do this?
There is likely to be a backlog of cases along with a predicted reshuffle of construction project priorities. Through reviewing our planning portal figures, we’ve noticed that there’s a downturn in terms of pubs and other public buildings applying for planning permission, as the restrictions around socialising reduces the incentive to invest.
The blocker will end up being councils. The current approvals process for local authority planners and building control is tied down in bureaucracy and archaic paper-based forms.
Covid-19 has seen an upturn in digital adoption across the entire public sector, with a particular focus on allowing staff to work from home, but it’s vital for the construction industry that this momentum remains. The relationship and processes linking construction and local authority planning are ripe for a rethink.
Planning and building control approvals
Considering both require in-person visits to be granted, a dramatic re-think will be required on how these visits can take place, with the current restrictions imposed by the virus.
Not least to help speed the process up to deal with the backlog, but also to ensure the safety of all involved. Planners and building control officers from local authorities, verifying sites and filling out risk assessment forms, usually carry the correct forms to site visits, fill them out, and then return to the office to re-enter that data into the case management system.
This carries a risk of virus transmission from paper documents, but it is also a cumbersome, uninspiring process that leads to duplication of entry. Planning teams are also now, like many civil servants, working remotely, which also increases the need for a new solution.
What needs to change
Something that could remedy this would be a solution that provides mobile access to case management systems, an app that can be downloaded onto any device, where planners and building control officers have access to all forms needed, as well as other important background information, such as address and site contacts.
A good mobile solution will provide access to relevant forms at the touch of a button, allow the user to fill these out offline and for that data to configure into the case management system instantly once connected to the internet. This will not only drive efficiencies and save time desperately needed to help boost the industry, but it will also provide council officers with a safer method of recording data.
Additionally, the mobile solution will allow the council officers to carry out a suitable Covid-19 risk assessment before carrying out the inspection, thus ensuring that all necessary precautions are carried out and an audit trail is produced evidencing this.
There are also longer-term benefits as well, for example, a reduction in paper would result in cost savings for councils, as well as promoting sustainability.
One user of our mobile solutions, Jotter, is South Worcestershire (SW) ICT (the provider of shared services to Malvern Hills District Council, Worcester City Council and Wychavon District Council), which is currently testing the solution ready for the expected influx of construction projects due to restart.
Already we’ve received positive feedback from the organisation claiming that testing the solution has given SW the confidence that their users will feel empowered to work more flexibly and efficiently. This will allow them to be more agile and the increased functionality will enable them to streamline time-intensive processes, which in the long term, they are hopeful, will result in an increase in productivity and saved time.
Digital is pivotal
A mobile solution is only one tool in a range of digital products that could be the answer for helping local authorities and the construction industry work together more efficiently and help to keep the industry afloat at this challenging time.
Although council budgets are being called into question due to the financial footprint of Covid-19, it’s always worth considering that upfront cost on digital provision will likely yield longer-term saving.