The Real Face of Construction 2020 report from the Chartered Institute of Building reflects the true value of the industry in economic, social and environmental terms – and sets a course for addressing some of the sector’s key issues
The report the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) published at the end of February, the Real Face of Construction 2020, puts the economic influence of the UK construction sector at almost double that of the officially recorded figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS).
This new report helps make the case for this important industry, outlining the argument for more accurate metrics in order to fully recognise and understand the complexities in the sector.
It sets out the sector’s giant reach into the economy, which officially accounts for about 6% of UK economic output and provides employment for more than two million people. However, the narrow ONS definition of the industry ignores the work of architects, engineers and quantity surveyors, as well as manufacturers dedicated to the sector, builders’ merchants and plant hire providers. This matters hugely as the work that the construction industry does can often be taken for granted.
The true value of the built environment
At the parliamentary launch earlier this year, Caroline Gumble, the CIOB’s chief executive, said: “The quality of our built environment affects every member of society; our work influences productivity and wellbeing at home and at work. It is both far-reaching and life-shaping.
“Our purpose for this report is to help educate policymakers about the true value of the built environment and the need to work in closer partnership with the industry to realise its full potential. This is particularly important at regional level, where it can rebalance local economies and offer people a quality career unlike many others.”
The regional economy is important for any sector, and the CIOB report breaks down the value construction has on a regional level. It demonstrates the wide variations in regional performance and output that have occurred since 2013, making the case for integrated policymaking at a local, regional and national level. The report includes regional data examining the number of construction businesses, output from the industry, stock of buildings, number of people employed by sector, annual earnings and key projects, demonstrating construction’s importance as an employer and driver of prosperity in each area.
The most notable regional variation is that of the significant difference between the capital and the rest of the UK. Specifically, from 2013 to 2018, the greater South East – London, South East England and East of England – accounted for 45% of all construction output in Great Britain. However, that is expected to change over the next decade, with London still doing well, but some regions seeing a surge in activity as, for example, Hinkley Point comes on stream and HS2 gets a green light.
Understanding the workforce
A key part of understanding the needs of the industry is to understand the movement of skills in what is, to an extent, still an itinerant workforce. Historically, peaks and troughs in construction workload have fuelled this movement of the itinerant workforce; trades and professionals moved where the work was. But that’s not necessarily a good thing for construction, the economy or society and there is a strong argument to be made for matching resources to the skills that are needed. For example, if we are building more transport infrastructure in the North and Midlands, we need skills in those regions to deliver those projects. One solution is to bring some focus to develop the necessary skills locally, potentially allowing construction to have a huge, positive impact at the local level. If project managers live near their work, there is a virtuous circle of wages being spent locally and money going back into the local economy.
Further exacerbating the regional skills problem is the ageing construction workforce, which is far more pronounced outside of London. Using the pipeline of planned work is an opportunity to address this regional skills imbalance. Potentially using the data presented in The Real Face of Construction, industry leaders should examine what sectors are growing and where the demand is.
Another recommendation in the report is the creation of specialist clusters, where regions become centres of excellence in certain areas of expertise. Pursuing such policies could provide genuine local and national economic benefits. Across many industries, generating improved performance has come from clustering businesses – helping to stimulate innovation, create greater opportunities for networking and sharing of ideas, and open up greater scope for collaboration. This, in turn, helps regional companies become far more effective in their local market as well as in the wider UK and overseas economies. Combined with the likely move of the UK construction industry towards more prefabrication and offsite manufacturing, clustering will make more and more sense.
The report suggests that both local and central government should seek to promote and support clusters of construction-related businesses to act as hubs of excellence and innovation. Incentives, such as low rates and provision of other services that support development of the sector, should be made available for a range of businesses such as engineers, architects, surveyors, contractors and product manufacturers. These clusters should, ideally, be near to and linked to centres of education and training.
In bringing some of these ideas to life, we need better measurement to make the case. The value construction provides – economic, social and environmental – is not fully revealed in the ONS data and better measurement means better policymaking. The Real Face of Construction 2020 makes a number of recommendations to address this, with two of the main asks being:0
- Satellite accounts for construction to be prepared annually by the ONS and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. These would pull together all the elements of official data across the broader construction sector, providing a series of meaningful statistics that capture the whole industry and not simply assembly work undertaken on site. This would provide a clearer picture of trends in productivity, activity, employment and demand related to delivering the built environment.
- Industry, local and central government and academic institutions should promote more research into the value generated by construction that is not captured in the market. Significant work is being undertaken to assess the impact on land values, but deeper understanding of the effects created by developing the built environment will provide for a more accurate appraisal of potential projects, leading to improvements in the value added through construction.
A better measure of construction
In issuing this report, our call for a better measure of the construction industry is combined with the results of new research that gauges the public’s attitude towards the industry and their aspirations for the built environment. It makes the point that the UK construction industry has not reached its full potential and will only do so if it operates in an environment with a clear vision, with an understanding of different regional needs, and with a focus from policymakers armed with good quality data and information about this economically important sector.
By including all aspects of the design and construction process, construction GDP could be close to double in size. Understanding this is crucial, because if policymakers and experts do not have access to the full picture then bad policy, leading to be bad decisions, is likely to be made.
It is worth noting that this report was launched prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although there are many uncertainties about the long-term social and economic impact that the pandemic is set to have, the need for a better and more comprehensive understanding of the true value construction will remain. Having meaningful statistics that capture the whole industry will be vital when looking at the future of the UK’s economy. As the UK starts to return to normal operation, or find a “new normal”, fully understanding the picture of the sector will improve the decisions government will need to make to support the industry through what could be difficult and uncertain times.
There is no doubt of the real need for a better understanding of, and better data on, the challenges in the sector to help in making the right decisions at the right time.
The CIOB’s Real Face of Construction 2020 report can be accessed by clicking here.
Director of policy, research and public affairs
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