On the right track?

All that glitters is not necessarily HS2, writes Alasdair Henderson

Alasdair Henderson
On the right track?

Having received royal assent, the High Speed Two (HS2) project is getting ready to start construction. With the first contracts having been awarded, I am sure many in the construction sector will be rubbing their hands in readiness for the workload it will surely bring. And it is good news, as many UK industries face short- to medium-term uncertainty as a result of Brexit. The future of the construction sector, thanks in part to government-backed infrastructure programmes like HS2 and nuclear power plants such as Wylfa Newydd and Hinkley Point C, looks more certain. In fact, it is probably fair to say that the government is pinning much of future UK growth and stability on these infrastructure projects, with the wider UK economy benefiting from the obvious collateral requirements and investment these bring.

However, there is still room for some caution. The specialist contractor sector, much like the wider construction industry, is also facing many challenges and all of these have the potential to impact on its ability to service future projects. Take the lack of available and appropriate skills, an ever-present issue that the Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS) has been campaigning on regularly over many years. The Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) has forecast that some 179,000 jobs will be created over the next five years, which is excellent news. However, given the lead time for skills development within the piling and wider geotechnical sectors, and the existing skills shortfall, there is the real potential for projects to be delayed for lack of skilled people. Ahead of Brexit, government needs to sort out the issue of existing skilled migrant EU workers, who contribute so much to delivery of our capital projects, and put in place alternative robust visa arrangements for skilled workers who want to work in the UK post Brexit.

Related to skills and employee numbers is the issue of capacity. Few companies have been growing rapidly since the 2008 recession; many admitting that only through careful planning and management have they been able to survive. To say investment during this period has been depressed is an understatement, with many construction companies having limited recruitment to staff replacement only. With an ageing workforce and available new blood limited in supply, many companies may simply not be able to take on HS2 work at the pace the project requires to meet its own schedules. And let's not forget that foundation work is one of the early contactors on site, so it will be in demand much sooner than other specialist contractors. How is your capacity?

The very nature of a railway - an end-to-end project spanning wide geographical regions - brings its own problems. How well is your workforce or business dispersed to adequately take on work across the length of the HS2 project? Equally, the regional demands on business may mean pulling resource away from other areas, with an obvious impact on existing contracts and clients.

I would urge piling businesses to realistically assess the certainty of workload, before rubbing hands in anticipation of great financial gains and rushing off on a spending spree on people, technology resource and plant etc, on the assumption that there will be a rapid return on investment. As many companies discovered when the first contracts were handed out, there are many more losers than there are winners, and consequently there are no guarantees that work will trickle down equally, or at all.

All this said, HS2 and other infrastructure projects will be good for UK construction and the specialist contractors, such as the piling sector. The volume of work available is enormous and long-lasting, which all bodes well for growth, success and sustainability. I caution companies to weigh up the facts and opportunities available, anticipate demand both in skills and workload and plan accordingly - hopefully this will put us all on the right ‘track' to take full advantage of the benefits HS2 presents.



Alasdair Henderson is the chair of the Federation of Piling Specialists (FPS), the industry body for piling and foundation contractors and geotechnical specialists in the UK. The FPS provides a bimonthly column on issues related to the construction industry