Sector - Consultancy

Industry Forum Assessment of Covid in Construction

Mathew Baxter is the Group Chief Executive of Echelon Consultancy, which provides best practice advice and guidance through its asset management improvement partnerships for registered providers, contractors and suppliers (AMIP/CAMIP).

In our role as an industry forum, with AMIP as a unique best practice and benchmarking club formed for housing providers to share expertise across the asset management field and CAMIP, its industry expert equivalent, we’re perfectly placed to share our insights into the trends and behaviours of the construction and housing industry over this extraordinary period.

In March 2020 we began holding weekly Covid calls for members of our partnership organisations; we had no idea we would still be holding the calls in October 2020.  The request came from some of our regular clients which include local authorities, housing associations, construction companies and other stakeholders, who felt they would feel more confident if they could understand how their contemporaries were handling the crisis. Our aim was to try and keep organisations in the construction industry and housing sector ahead of the curve and after initially having 40 people on the call we’re now up to 200, ranging from representatives from the Chartered Institute of Housing, suppliers and local authorities.  We immediately began accruing data which has enabled us to create a comprehensive picture of the industry since the onset of Covid.

It’s easy to forget that lockdown only ended in the middle of July as there were many slightly over-optimistic predictions of a bounce-back rate.  The industry is back to 93% capacity in the new build arena and we would expect that to go up in September.  The expectation was that the construction economy would return to normal but it takes between 4-6 weeks just to restart a construction site as so many external suppliers and contractors are involved.  It’s certainly not like flicking a switch and the timescales reflect that.

Although the Government guidance indicated construction sites could continue to work once they were gated, controlled and Covid-safe, the industry took a hit in perception from the public who were unaware and occasionally would take their frustration out physically or verbally at workers on site.  As a result, some of the big developers took the economically painful decision to shut their sites.    The confusion occurs when the government guidance is unclear and the public are unaware of the regulations.  For a small business owner who has been forced to close his premises and let staff go, seeing a busy construction site that he thinks is working in spite of the lockdown is going to be infuriating.  Construction, as the backbone of the economy, has to be given the green light to continue but it can only do so if that permission is made explicit to the public.

In terms of the construction sector as a whole, if, as seems likely, we are entering into a period of severe localised lockdowns, then the construction sector is ready, sites are safe, and operatives understand what is expected of them.  As a result, I firmly believe we are in a strong position to continue delivering works and services in a safe manner.  The key thing will be to get that message across to the general public.

Much of the housing sector outside of new build is focusing on compliance and repair and gradually restarting sites that were closed down.   This led to some difficult decisions for contractors.  If a tenant is isolating or shielding, does the operative go into the property to undertake that work or not?  Potentially harmful events like flooding would have to be dealt with immediately, but masonry cracks could be stockpiled until the guidelines had eased.

During the first lockdown in Spring we noticed that the core demand for repairs dropped dramatically.  People assumed that as they were in lockdown no-one would be permitted to attend their property.  This time however, areas that have been put into localised lockdown like Liverpool and Manchester have had no drop off in demand from tenants as yet.  The behaviour has changed – people are confident, they have seen operatives attired in masks and they have read or seen communications about how the operative will behave so it feels more achievable and safer to allow maintenance in the property.  As an industry body we have not had been made aware of tenant complaints about operatives.  Quite the opposite, for example when the operative goes in and the tenant is glad of the company and the operative has to remind the tenant of the 2m distance rule and explain why they can’t accept the tenant’s kindly offered hospitality.

Coronavirus has profoundly altered the relationship between tenants and landlords, oddly enough for the better.  Our research has shown that customer satisfaction is currently high among social housing tenants.  They can see the extra effort made by landlords.  As an example, we have managed to maintain 99% compliance on gas services throughout the Covid period, although we were informed that lenience would be shown bearing in mind the difficult circumstances.  Credit should be given to these landlords, who put the safety of their tenants first.  Some of our members have had HSE snap audits to assess how Covid-secure they are (both at site and office level) and to date all our clients have had a clean bill of health.  The positivity and communication between tenants, landlords and contractors has been a real success story throughout Covid which is a cheering thought in such desperate times.

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