We need a plan

As the first wave of the pandemic subsides, our economy still needs serious support. Hywel Davies considers how we might now meet future demands

Recent weeks have been quite extraordinary. Virtually all economic and social activity not supporting the front line of patient care or maintaining essential services and support for the vulnerable has been confined to our homes or stopped.

In our sector, those that still have work to do have done it at home. But the daily routine of building and refurbishment has largely stopped, along with its supply chains. Cash flow has been severely constrained and workflows drastically restricted. As we begin to contemplate the reopening of sites and projects using revised, leaner working practices and as the supply chain restarts, we must plan ahead, too.

Re-establishing a regular business routine is important, but will take time. And pressing issues that have been pushed out of mind cannot be ignored  or forgotten.

The impact of the pandemic has largely removed climate change and carbon emissions from the daily headlines but, as the outbreak comes under greater control, the challenge of climate change remains. Ambitious targets to reduce emissions over the next 30 years still apply in the UK and globally. They have not changed. But the time and resources we have to meet them now are reduced.

Just three months ago, we followed hourly not the latest statistics for Covid-19, but river levels across England and the Welsh Marches. The urgency of further investment in flood defences and mitigation measures to protect homes and businesses has not subsided.

Before Covid-19 swept all before it, there was a growing consensus over air quality in our cities and buildings. Levels of pollution have declined temporarily, but will climb again as swiftly as traffic levels. The crisis has driven business online and cut travel radically as we all use online meeting tools. Will we reassess work and travel habits afterwards with equal radicalism? Most of us do not want to go ‘back to normal’, but do we know what the new normal will look like?

The lockdown shows how much behaviour change can help to cut carbon emissions and improve air quality, albeit at huge cost. What are the longer-term opportunities for engineering innovation that will enable us to control emissions and improve air quality?

While the Grenfell Inquiry is suspended as a result of Covid-19, building safety reform remains urgent. There is still considerable work to do both to remediate inappropriately clad buildings and to deliver the wider sectoral reform to which government has committed.

The response of some construction businesses to the lockdown shows the scale of challenge to achieve this. That industry leaders had publicly to call for reasonable behaviour shows the level, scale and difficulty of cultural change truly demanded by the Hackitt Review.

We will emerge from the current restrictions with businesses seriously weakened, reduced demand for engineering services and an engineering workforce with insufficient work.
It makes no long-term sense to leave them underemployed. In the 1930s Depression, the New Deal in the USA was a massive programme of publicly funded works to deliver employment and much-needed infrastructure.

Some will doubtless argue that, in the wake of Covid-19, all these targets are unachievable, unaffordable and unrealistic. But we must hold our nerve and, taking the mantra of the current crisis, we must follow science and engineering principles.

We must resume work to tackle the challenges of climate change, flooding and water management, air quality and building safety. If Covid-19 has reduced workloads, we should seize the opportunity to refocus them on these priorities. We need a clear plan to reduce carbon emissions from the built environment. This needs engineering input – ideally publicly funded. We must re-engineer how we safely build healthy zero carbon buildings in the future.

We must recognise some very simple numbers. More than 80% of UK buildings in 2050 are already built, at – or below – 2013 standards. To get anywhere near a zero carbon target we must refurbish them, too.

Giving ourselves Sundays off, we have about 9,000 days. At 27 million homes, that is 3,000 homes a day from now to 2050. Or four times the pre-virus new homes output. We need a zero carbon recovery plan.

Listen to Hywel Davies on CIBSE Journal’s Covid-19 podcast