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Guest blog: How is construction adapting to a limited return to site working?

Lodders Real Estate partner Alastair Frew recently spoke with Eleanor Deeley (pictured), Deputy Managing Director of the Deeley Group, about her thoughts and experiences of how construction is adapting to a limited return to site work, as the country gears up for a possible easing of the Coronavirus lockdown.

Despite the tragic events which have crippled countries across the globe and robbed families of loved ones, I think everyone has been pleasantly surprised how quickly people have adjusted to working from home and meeting virtually.

It would have been all too easy for development and construction to grind to a total halt. While many of the aspects of the profession have been rendered impossible through restrictions, the Government flexing planning regulations has allowed a great deal of work to continue when otherwise it would have been forced to cease.

Planning goes on.

The change has allowed more planning matters to be agreed under delegated powers which means a continuation in the flow of applications being processed.

Planning meetings can be and have been held remotely with members logging-in over the internet or on the telephone. The location of a meeting can be defined digitally – such as a web address or video conference call – rather than a physical place. With careful planning, committee members, officers and applicants can meet virtually, with members of the public registering their wish to speak in advance.

Public consultations are far harder to carry out during lockdown yet the Local Government Association Planning Advisory Service has urged local authorities to press on, employing social media, interactive maps and online information, and utilising virtual groups through channels such as Facebook.

During this dreadful time, the planning system is being shaped and moulded to mutual benefit.

Signs of life

There is no doubt that parts of the economy are beginning to show signs of life – but the tap is only being turned on very slowly.

I was on one of many recent video calls when someone said that as we end lockdown it will be a little like when you have had your boiler repaired. When you turn on tap it splutters as the pipes refill and takes a while for the flow to be resumed.

Lockdown

On the construction side of the Deeley Group, the announcement of lockdown and social distancing meant our tap was tightly turned off and we closed our 11 sites.

I fully appreciate that it is very difficult for government to be clear and concise, bearing in mind the myriad of unprecented measures they are bringing in at the moment, but there was, at best, uncertainty as to what was essential working.

Also, the advice that work would continue also came with a heavy hint that there was little understanding as to how a site works and that did cause concern in the industry.

Changed way of working

Slowly the sector got to grips with exactly how we could continue working to a level while strictly adhering to the social distancing rules. That has, inevitably, meant big changes in how we work.

For example, signing in is now by text rather than an electronic fingerprint system; canteens are closed; site times, break times and lunch times are staggered; we can only have 10 to 30 per cent of the number of people on site to allow for social distancing.

There have been struggles getting materials – especially plasterboard – and many of the builders’ merchants were closed until very recently. That is all easing and the supply of UK-produced goods is getting much better, but there will be times when we are held up by the absence of products such as lifts or air-conditioning units, which have to be imported.

Health & wellbeing

Interestingly, in a world of sub-contractors, there has been a total regard for the health and wellbeing of staff. This has been refreshing to witness, particularly when at the same time, there were images from major construction projects where workers were paying no attention to the guidance.

Sub-contractors are only coming back to sites where they are confident that social distancing can be maintained and, when it can’t, that there is suitable PPE used by all.

Rate of construction

However, no-one should be under the impression that this means we are back to normal. Social distancing is likely to remain in place for many months to come and this means that the rate of construction is going to remain low because of the limited numbers on site.

As ever, industry is going to have to find a way to overcome the hurdle. We might need
to extend working hours as we have the longer evenings arriving, almost operating a two-shift system to maximise the number of working hours on site.

I think an increase in weekend working is almost inevitable, which will not only allow us to maintain progress as much as possible, but will also allow sub-contractors to earn, which will be very welcome after the last two months.

Equally inevitable will be increased costs because efficient sequencing of a build will not be possible given the restrictions in place and the equipment shortages.

There are also other more trivial, but still important, consequences. Spirit on a site is always important but with people working alone we simply cannot interact in the same way.

There is going to be part of our morale that is absent as we miss the joke that we don’t hear, and the catch up over a coffee during a break.

But that is a small price to pay.

This blog was guest-written by Eleanor Deeley, headline speaker at Lodders 2019 Property Seminar.

More information

Deeley Group is a family-owned award winning construction and development group, based in the Midlands and operating and providing long term sustainable benefits across the UK for 80 years. It specialises in Design & Build, Construction, Redesign & Refurbishment, Fitting out, Property Development, Land Acquisition, Affordable Living, and Private Sale Homes.

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