Eleanor Deeley, Deputy Managing Director of the Deeley Group, on how construction is adapting to a limited return to site working
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.
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.
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 10-30 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.
Interestingly, in a world of sub-contractors, there has been a total regard for the health and wellbeing of staff, which has been refreshing to witness particularly when, at the same time, there were images from major construction projects where workers 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, there is suitable PPE used by all.
But 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, but that will not only allow us to maintain progress as much as possible but it will also allow sub-contractors to earn, which will 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.
Eleanor Deeley, Deputy Managing Director of the Deeley Group, casts her eye over how the planning system is adjusting to life in lockdown
At a time when people have been panic buying shopping for toilet rolls, cutting their own hair and congregating for karaoke parties during the lockdown, it is refreshing – and indeed rare – to highlight the planning structure as a model of good sense.
Despite the tragic events which have crippled countries across the globe and robbed families of loved ones, other aspects of life have to try to operate as normal or at least adapt to the unique circumstances in which we find ourselves.
I think everyone has been pleasantly surprised, for example, 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.
The change has allowed more planning matters to be agreed under delegated powers which means that there continues to be a flow of applications being processed.
As with all aspects of business during the lockdown period, precise preparation and clear communication are vital in ensuring officers have as full a picture as possible allowing them to be comfortable they are able to make the right decisions.
The changes to planning regulations have also given council’s certain freedoms to decide the best ways to operate within guidelines.
Planning meetings can, for example, be held remotely with members logging in over the internet or on the telephone. The location of a meeting can now be defined digitally such as a web address or video conference call rather than a physical place.
As long as committee members, officers and applicants can hear and be heard then a meeting can go ahead. Contributions from the members of the public if they are allowed to speak can be registered in advantage.
I wonder how many times committees would like to have had a “mute facility” at their disposal in real meetings!
Public consultations are, by their very nature, 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.
These are still early days relative to public consultations and there are more formal and structured elements to the process which may not be able to be conducted remotely, and there is talk of guidance being flexed to make that possible should this situation continue.
There are elements which have proved trickier to overcome. Some smaller councils do not have it within their constitution to make decisions without a physical meeting while traffic counts – a key factor in planning applications and consents – are impossible to measure when we are restricted to essential journeys only.
Again, if lockdown continues then the system will have to adapt and research has shown that more than three quarters of councillors are behind the process continuing virtually until the crisis is behind us.
What this dreadful time has shown is that, when the pressure is on and needs must, the planning system, which at times seems massively inflexible, can be shaped and moulded to mutual benefit.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that spirit of understanding and mutual working continued long after this horrible period is over?
A Coventry construction company has continued its commitment to bringing forward the next generation of talent in the industry.
Deeley Construction, which is based at George House at Coventry Business Park, has taken on three new apprentices to assist with the firm’s continued growth.
Charlie Stevens and Matt Byrne are both management trainees with the company and Katie-May Cashmore is a trainee accounts assistant.
Charlie is undertaking a Construction Management Degree at Birmingham City University, while Matt is studying for a BTEC Diploma in Construction Level 3 at South & City College Birmingham. Katie-May is completing an AAT Diploma Level 2 at Coventry College City Campus.
The trio continue a long-held tradition at Deeley Construction of growing its own workforce with almost 20 per cent of the company’s staff coming through the firm as an apprentice.
It’s a proud record that includes managing director Martin Gallagher, who welcomed Charlie, Matt and Katie-May to the company.
Martin said: “The skills shortage in construction is one of the biggest issues facing our industry but here at Deeley Construction we have always seen apprenticeships as a great route to growing our own and the industry’s future workforce.
“I know only too well the benefits of being an apprentice having started my career as one. It gave me the opportunity to work my way up through the business to the point where I am now able to give others the same chance I had.
“It’s great that Charlie, Matt and Katie-May want to develop a career in construction and also highlights that there are many roles in our sector from being out on-site through to being based in the office.
“As a company, we continue to grow and the addition of three new apprentices is a perfect way for us to start looking ahead to 2018.”
Pictured (left to right): Charlie Stevens, Katie-May Cashmore, Martin Gallagher, Matt Byrne