Now is the time to take risks, construction summit hears

More than 250 delegates gathered for the third annual Construction Summit North at Emirates Old Trafford cricket ground.

Brexit and the Northern Powerhouse dominated the conversation at the event, organised by the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce. Calls for resilience, collaboration and determination echoed throughout the day.

Prof Mohammed Arif of University of Salford opened the event with the launch of a new research centre for Built Environment Sustainability & Transformation (BEST). He said the centre will be a prolific, global base for research across three areas: Built Environment Informatics; Construction and Property Management; and Applied Buildings and Energy Research.

Christian Spence, head of research and policy at GMCC, revealed early findings of the latest Construction Pipeline Analysis for the North, which will be available later this year. The research showed that in the years up to and including 2020, the industry is set to see a construction output of £42bn in the North.

Spence said housing supply is increasing but not at the level required to mitigate significant price increases. The volume of planning applications is up but the cost of navigating the planning system remains too high. A total of £17bn is set to be spent on infrastructure in the North up to 2020. The biggest issues for the sector shown in the research were confidence and recruitment.

GMCC Construction Summit North 2016

In a panel discussion chaired by Prof Peter McDermott, University of Salford, on sector resilience and support, addressing the skills gap via apprenticeships was discussed at length, with concerns expressed over the relevance of apprenticeships to the industry’s skills demand.

Mark Stodgell, associate director at construction consultancy, PCSG, urged that in this period of uncertainty brought on by Brexit, now is the time to look at new opportunities, take risks and be proactive and innovative, and not talk ourselves into a disaster.

A panel session on connectivity with speakers from Network Rail, Manchester Airport Group, Sellafield and Skanska, covered the need for efficiency in infrastructure projects, the continued growth of transport demand especially in rail, and the necessity for more digital infrastructure to support the physical infrastructure.

The fate of Northern Powerhouse post-Brexit was discussed at length, with concerns over possible rebranding dismissed; host Chris Fletcher, GMCC, commented: “the rationale remains whether the name does or not; we must not lose sight of the key messages”. Martin Frobisher, Network Rail, stressed that “the Northern Powerhouse is now not in the future. We need to stop talking about it as if it is something yet to come; we are seeing the benefits now.”

Eamonn Boylan, GMCC Summit Eamonn Boylanchief executive of Stockport Council, spoke about the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework, of which a full draft plan will go to consultation in October of this year, with the aim of it being adopted on a statutory basis at the beginning of 2018. Boylan asserted that the GMSF would make it easier to plan with certainty during the period of uncertainty ahead, and “though it will not be a cure-all, it will allow confidence in the deliverability of plans”. He remarked that local plans will still be hugely important as managing the place-making agenda cannot be done at a Greater Manchester level.

Boylan spoke of a need to quickly work with the Government to ensure that the European Structural Funds are not lost. Positive about the future, Boylan declared, “We have not lost ambition and we are not holding back”.

Chamber chief executive Clive Memmott closed the event with a speech urging a move forwards from the “hysteria and blame”, to look beyond the current period of uncertainty and press on with the Northern Powerhouse.

Several votes were put to the attendees on a number of topical themes, the results of which include:

  • 40% said their business has already been affected following the outcome of the Referendum; 41% said it was too early to say
  • 78% had an average to high level of confidence in the Northern Powerhouse
  • 87% had an average to high level of confidence in the future of the sector
  • 83% thought infrastructure investment is more urgent than it was 10 years ago
  • 30% considered rail to be one of the most important infrastructure investments for prosperity in the North
  • 46% voted for local control as the best way to improve the planning system
  • 25% of attendees were not concerned about the effects of the EU Referendum
  • 87% believed that Brexit negotiations would reflect business views to some extent

The results of this vote will be used to inform the Chamber’s forward plan for campaigning and will be passed onto key decision makers in the industry.

The event was sponsored by the University of Salford and CITB. Place North West was the media partner.

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