Posted on Thursday 8 August 2019 by Ulster Business

David fry

David Fry of the Construction Employers Federation (CEF) assesses the triumph of some of Northern Ireland’s biggest construction firms making the Top 100 while observing the challenges ahead for the industry

The publication of this year’s Top 100 comes at a time when Northern Ireland’s construction industry is at something of a crossroads.

While the mid-point of 2019 bears little resemblance, thankfully, to the economic maelstrom of 2008-12, it is a point at which the industry is increasingly facing in one of two directions over the medium term.

The first direction is that which those contractors included in the Top 100, and well beyond this, have been working towards since they successfully recovered from the recession.

This direction has seen contractors such as Graham, McAleer & Rushe, McLaughlin & Harvey, Northstone/Farrans and Gilbert-Ash delivers projects across the UK, Ireland and beyond which are making a massive social, economic and cultural contribution.

Taking these five contractors in isolation, you can see daily the contribution of they, their staff and their extensive supply chains in enhancing Northern Ireland’s competitiveness and attractiveness as a region to do business and invest in.

Projects such as the A6 Randalstown-Castledawson dualling, the new transport hub in Derry, the refurbishment of the Ulster Hospital, the new wave of hotel development in Belfast, the expansion of student accommodation schemes and the new leisure centres in places like Craigavon and are significant economic drivers in a multitude of ways.

A new era of development that is geared towards building on Northern Ireland’s peace has unquestionably begun. However, the challenges in making that era sustainable are growing.

That lack of sustainability, which could lead many contractors down an altogether different path, has its root in an array of interconnected factors.

Chief among these is the lack of strategic political leadership which continues to prevail. Yes, recent months have seen planning progress on a number of major projects such as the Belfast Transport Hub which have, to at least some extent, had their hold-ups due to a lack of a Northern Ireland Executive.

This progress is unquestionably welcome, however without strategic political oversight we are faced with a series of challenges which are holding the growth potential of contractors and, consequently, the growth of their workforces back. These challenges are, chiefly:

■ The continual underfunding and sub-optimal governance model of Northern Ireland Water which is now stalling otherwise shovel ready housing projects across the country and will increasingly impact on other forms of infrastructure

■ The need for further focus on our underperforming planning system and the role of statutory consultees within it

■ The agreement of multi-year budgets for delivery areas such as social housing and road maintenance to increase efficiency and provide certainty to the market

■ The need for a long-term solution to address the issues with the Housing Executive’s stock maintenance

■ The necessity for government to widen its capital purse strings through innovative and de-risking partnerships with contractors, local councils and other potential funders

■ The need for government to work collaboratively with industry to fix our skills crisis

■ The further roll-out of successful pilot approaches in dealing with abnormally low tenders on public contracts

What we find most notable about the above is that its not as if we’re calling for radical change which is not present elsewhere in these islands. The rest of the UK and Ireland have either faced or are facing the same challenges as we – but the appetite and political will exist elsewhere to do something about it.

The construction industry is one which, through its own diversification and innovation, can inspire. However, to make that vision sustainable, there needs to be direction. There need to be tough choices made. When the Northern Ireland Executive is restored, it needs to choose the sustainable path for our industry – and that will involve not kicking the can down the road as it too often has done before.

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