Duncan Firth, Walker Sime MD and Chair of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce Property & Construction Group, looks at the opportunities and challenges for construction in Manchester, and the sector’s habit of ‘finding a way’.
In 2008, 2.6 million people worked in construction (1). By last year it was just 2.2 million. 300,000 more will retire in the next 3-4 years. Add in everyday churn and we’ll have lost close to a million people in 20 years. More than a third of the entire sector. Gone.
We have a Levelling Up agenda that some might say isn’t (yet) doing a great deal of levelling for the people of Greater Manchester. As a sector and region we’ve faced decades of underinvestment. And you don’t need me to tell you about the challenges of dealing with current levels of inflation, energy costs, cost of living and more.
It was against this backdrop that I approached my recent speech as Chair of the GM Chamber of Commerce Property & Construction Group. It was the Property & Construction Awards Dinner and the Building of The Year Awards for 2022. I was supposed to be looking at the positives (and the finalists – about which more in a moment – offered so many positives), but I wouldn’t have had to try too hard to take a pessimistic view.
Fortunately, I’m not a natural pessimist.
In Manchester and Salford over the past year, and according to the Deloitte Crane Survey, we’ve seen 25 new construction starts totalling 1.7m sq. ft. 4,500 new homes are predicted to be built in each of next three years. Manchester’s average hotel occupancy rates are now close to pre-Covid levels and are expected to continue growing at 5% per year to 2025.
Thanks to the construction sector, hospitality added 1,500 new hotel beds to the market this year. 600 are currently under construction. More are in the pipeline. That’s just buildings (not infrastructure), and it doesn’t include the many projects underway across the other eight boroughs of Greater Manchester.
These stats are a response to the fact that an additional 48,800 people began living in Manchester and Salford between the last two censuses (2). Manchester was the only UK city featured as ‘best in travel’ in Lonely Planet 2023 (3). It’s one of the most visited cities in the UK outside London.
That tells me there’s opportunity in this region. As a sector – and as a region – we’ve got an impressive track record in capitalising on such opportunities. I describe it as ‘finding a way’. Manchester construction companies are good at ‘finding a way’. I don’t mean that in a glib, everything-will-be-alright-in-the-end sort of way. I mean we really find a way – in all sorts of ways – despite all the challenges we face.
Levelling up? Yes, we want a slice of the government pie. But it’s not as though we’re sat on our hands waiting for it to happen.
Finding a way
We’re finding a way in terms of skills. We may face a major talent shortfall, but at least we can be encouraged that the numbers choosing an apprenticeship route into construction increased during 2022. We’re finding a way through the partnerships we develop with contractors, developers and local authorities that’s seeing momentum build on regeneration projects across the region.
We found a way through Covid and we’re finding a way to make GMCC carbon neutral by 2038. And is there any better example of how we ‘find a way’ than the finalists for this year’s Building of the Year Award? Top prize went to the world-first all-weather research centre Energy House 2.0 (4), but every finalist showcased construction’s ability to confront the challenges the world faces and offer answers – repurposing the old to make something new. Creating new cathedrals of learning. Tackling climate change. Delivering social good.
There’s so much to be proud of, but if we are to maintain momentum, we need to do more.
The need to modernise
Back in 2016 The Farmer Review said “modernise or die”. We’re making progress, but we need to go further, faster. It’s been said before, but the fact we’re still building with brick – a technology invented around 7,000BC – shows that not everything we do is as cutting edge as it could be.
We need to address the professional and trade skills shortage. If we modernise and increase productivity we may not need to replace all of that missing million, but there’s no escaping the importance of closing the skills gap – white collar and blue collar – by bringing in more apprentices.
And while I’ve spent much of this post championing our ability to go it alone and level up on our own terms, there’s no escaping the importance of government backing. We need investment because, although we can talk about collaboration and resilience until the cows come home, if we don’t have a bedrock of funding then all that planning, all that innovation, all that recruitment can’t make its mark.
A common goal
We know we face tough challenges. Frankly, I’m not sure I can remember a time when we weren’t faced with tough challenges. We’ve smashed through them before. We can smash through them again, but it’s important we do that with a common goal in mind.
I believe that common goal should be this: we have a duty to make sure that what’s been good for us continues to be good – if not better – for those who are coming next. I want to leave Greater Manchester in a better state than I found it. When the people in our industry look at the projects in which they have been involved, they should be proud to say “we did that” and know that those projects are making a difference to the lives of people across the region.
That’s certainly the case with this year’s Building of the Year finalists. It should be true of every project.
We have much to do, but I know this: we’ll find a way.
Walker Sime is proud to be involved in the regeneration of Manchester with projects including:
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