We cannot afford another boom and bust

Rob Manning gives his view on the greatest threat to the design, construction and operation of buildings ahead of CIBSE’s Building Performance Conference

I believe the greatest threat comes from the economic cycle of ‘boom and bust’.

Several times during my working life I have seen the departure of bright minds from construction to other sectors because the threat of a downturn has shaken their sense of job security. I have also seen the departure of experienced people in mid-life, whose incomes were deemed unaffordable. These losses have happened across craft, technical, management and leadership roles.

Recessions also have an impact on recruitment requirements, the demand for places in educational establishments, and the continuity of training within companies.

As we emerge from each recession, we hear the cries of company leaders that they are struggling to recruit people with the necessary skills – is it surprising?

In recent years, the impact of each recession has usually been made worse by a preceding construction boom. We are stuck with economic cycles influenced by many factors, and private-sector investment planning is usually quite short-term. The May 2011 Government Construction Strategy, however, suggested that 40% of construction turnover was generated by public-sector spending. This public sector workload should be planned long-term, and could provide a stable platform for recruitment, education and training in construction. But how often have we seen high-expenditure, short-term programmes to build what might be called critical national infrastructure assets, such as hospitals, schools, highways, railways, flood alleviation and power generation. Each of these has exacerbated ‘boom and bust’.

The period associated with asset investment planning for major national infrastructure is much greater than the term of office afforded to governments, so investment patterns are subject to five-year terms of political pressure. Should they be?

I would like to think the reformed Construction Leadership Council – with its mix of industry leaders and those dealing with asset investment planning in government departments – will have a strong and well-considered voice across all political parties, to provide a longer-term plan for the construction of assets that our society needs?

Can major infrastructure decisions be made across political parties in a timelier manner? Could this provide a managed pipeline of work for designers, constructors and operators around which to plan recruitment, education and training?

Rob Manning is part of government Level 3 BIM team at Engineering Construction Strategies