Prior to the announcement of the current lockdown, the incoming CIF President Frank Kelly set out his goals for the next two years in which he wants to build on the positives that have come out of the industry’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. BARRY MCCALL reports.
As incoming CIF President Frank Kelly, Construction Director, Walls Construction, surveys the events of his vice-presidency over the past two years, he focuses on the positive aspects and the extraordinary unity of purpose exhibited by Federation members during Covid-19.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s nine months since Covid-19 hit and the lockdown threatened to decimate the industry,” he says. “That determined a lot of the work done by CIF during the second and third quarters. Our main focus in the early days was trying to keep sites open, but the whole country went into lockdown.”
After that, the efforts were trained on reopening.
“A key point was how resilient and focused the industry was,” says Frank Kelly. “And this wasn’t just CIF members; it was the totality of the industry. The willingness of everyone to get together to deal with the issue was tremendous. That resulted in the production of the C-19 Pandemic Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), one of the most respected documents of its kind in years. The SOP demonstrated to Government that we had the methodology to get sites open safely.”
That was no small achievement.
“It probably took the Government by surprise,” he remarks. “No other industry did that. It was a pre-emptive move on our part and one of the positives to come out the whole Covid-19 situation. Construction was the first industry to get up and running again after the first lockdown.”
That was not the only positive.
A United Organisation
“It showed what a very united organisation the CIF is,” he points out. “The CIF membership represents every type of firm from multinational companies right down to sole traders. We are strong in numbers and in terms of the broad ecosystem of our membership. Ironically, Covid-19 proved to be a catalyst for collaboration and focus on a particular issue. That was what allowed us to get back up and running again.”
On the other hand, Covid-19 had the effect of overshadowing other good work being done by the CIF and its members.
“Unfortunately, Covid-19 commanded the spotlight for a long time, but a lot of positive things happened in the past year. The fallout from the pandemic had a serious impact on the industry, of course, and it resulted in a significant fall in turnover that put pressure on a lot of companies. But we didn’t see many projects falling away. The upshot of that is that they will continue into 2021. They have been delayed, not lost.”
Moving forward, he comes back to the strength that lies in the membership.
“The strength of the CIF membership is key to us. We are a very broad church, and the level of participation from our members is hugely important. The number of members who join up and give their time to serve on committees to deal with a range of issues is great. They find the time to share their expertise. You can’t put a price on that. The key for the future is to maintain that level of support. It’s great to know you can rely on people in times of trouble, but we need to maintain that level of engagement in normal times as well. There are always issues to deal with, and these vary for members across the Federation. Every member must know that the CIF is addressing their issues.”
Most Pressing Issues
According to Frank Kelly, one of the most pressing issues to be addressed in the near term will be the delivery of ‘Project Ireland 2040’.
“The Government has already announced a capital expenditure of over €10bn for 2021,” he notes. “Interestingly, the Taoiseach and Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath TD have both mentioned that the construction industry is key to the recovery.”
That acknowledgement is very welcome in light of recent history.
“It has taken us 10 years to get to the level of engagement we have with Government now,” Frank Kelly explains. “Coming out of the financial crisis, construction was a bad word, and we have worked tremendously hard to earn the trust of the public and the Government again. The industry’s actions during Covid and the production of the SOP are a key part of that. That’s very important as engagement with all Government departments will be key to the delivery of Project Ireland 2040 and the National Development Plan (NDP).”
Despite that commitment for 2021, there may be a bumpy ride ahead for some elements of the NDP.
“The NDP is currently being reviewed, and things can change as a result. But we don’t want to see projects already committed to being dropped. That’s particularly the case with infrastructure projects. It takes a long time to get them through the process to be shovel-ready, and we need to have good visibility on public expenditure to allow the industry to align itself to it. That’s hugely important.”
But the signs are hopeful.
“An important factor is that the Government recognises that the Public Capital Programme is necessary to stimulate growth,” says Frank Kelly. “The industry is now up and running again to support that. This will be important for our regional members. The regions have not been growing quickly enough, and the NDP’s regional focus will be hugely important.”
There are other issues to be addressed in the review, of course.
“I know there are concerns about cost overruns and failure to deliver on time in some instances, but well planned and well-executed projects generally come in on time and within budget. We are not the only country with these issues. Other countries have had them and learned lessons and brought in changes as a result. We can learn from their experiences.”
The longer-term reverberations from Covid-19 will have to be addressed within the NDP and other plans, he adds.
“We can see the impacts of Covid-19. Commercial development is starting to slow down. Housing delivery has also slowed. We need to deliver housing, but viability is a serious challenge. There are sites with planning permission for housing in urban centres, but, unfortunately, they are just not viable. A solution needs to be found collectively so these developments become viable, which will not only deliver to the wider economy but also assist in delivering the much-needed housing stock.
“If we are going to be reliant on the Land Development Agency and housing associations for delivery, that’s not going to work. There needs to be a balance between private sector development and Government-built houses. The Government plan for population and economic growth is going to require more housing and infrastructure development. There has to be the right blend between social and private housing.”
Then there is the hardy perennial, planning.
“Infrastructure projects have struggled to get delivered in this country,” Frank Kelly points out. “The planning process has proved difficult. There are a lot of obstacles to projects. Everyone is entitled to their view and to object, but we need to have a balance to ensure that key infrastructure gets delivered to allow for the delivery of housing and other projects that depend on it.”
There would be a social as well as an economic benefit to this, he argues.
“Large FDI companies will want to put their EMEA HQs in the larger cities, and we can’t do anything about that. But they may look at other areas if we can provide adequate social infrastructure in terms of housing, health, education and so on.”
Recruitment is another big-ticket issue for Frank Kelly.
“Construction is not seen as a viable career option in a recession,” he notes. “We raised matched funding from the Government for our Construction Careers Campaign, which kicked off with the ‘A Home for Everyone’ schools competition aimed at second-level students. The focus is on getting back to the grassroots and into second-level education to get the message across that construction is a viable career, either through apprenticeship or third-level routes. The industry offers wide, varied and rewarding careers with opportunities to travel, but the problem is that when the industry is not creating opportunities for people, apprenticeships and third-level places drop off. We’ve got to correct that now we’re growing again.”
Gender balance is another critical issue for him.
“We are on a drive to get more females to join the industry. Covid-19 and remote working may have afforded extra opportunities for women to enter the sector. Many people probably never thought you could run a construction business remotely. But they now see what you can do when you have to. That will make the industry more attractive to a lot of people.”
New Systems, New Technologies
Another area of progress has been the adoption of new systems and technologies.
“The industry has been slow to transform digitally, but that is changing. We are starting to see increased adoption of off-site construction and digital technology. That plays into the development of the SOP. A key feature of operating with Covid-19 has been a focus on reducing the number of people on site through off-site manufacturing where possible. That can bring about problems with capacity with off-site getting maxed out very quickly. But it creates opportunities for others to move into the space and add capacity or for existing players to expand.”
Frank Kelly concludes by saying that the sector is well placed to lead the nation’s economic recovery in 2021.
“We’ve said before that we are sitting in a privileged position. The industry has been largely unaffected by Covid relative to many others. The great majority of construction firms are still open, and that’s a hugely positive statement to make. Everyone has played a part in that. The SOP is on revision five at the moment. It is a living document, and we are constantly reviewing and adapting it to make sure it is fit for purpose for current circumstances. That means the industry will be able to stay open.”