CEF survey demands urgent government investment in infrastructure

Urgent action is required to refocus, procure and award construction contracts right now, a CEF survey has found
Gary McDonald Business Editor

FOCUS must switch from long-delayed major infrastructural projects and budgets instead diverted to smaller shovel-ready schemes to help revive the north's ailing construction sector, a lobby body is demanding.

And if the Assembly ends its financial year having underspent allocated budgets and is forced to hand back money to the Treasury, it must be held accountable to those whose jobs have been unnecessarily lost, according to the Construction Employers Federation (CEF).

Findings of a survey last month of 200 construction companies (combined turnover £1.5 billion) found the greatest single risk to jobs and survival of businesses is the slow pace of government's return to business and the procurement of much needed construction work.

The CEF's incoming managing director Mark Spence said: “Any other year we'd typically be calling for additional budgets, but this time we simply want money already allocated to be spent before the end of next March, at which point unspent monies risk being returned to Westminster.

“Finance minister Conor Murphy, in a recent meeting with the CEF, was clear he has no intention of allowing Northern Ireland budgets to be returned to Treasury.

“But in order for that to be the case, urgent action is required to refocus, procure and award contracts right now,” added Mr Spence, whose organisation represents a sector sustaining 65,000 skilled jobs.

With the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme winding down and no clear pipeline of work, half the businesses surveyed anticipate making significant redundancies.

“The frustration is that these job losses could be greatly reduced if government would proceed with much needed investment to address the years of underfunding in roads, water infrastructure, social housing, hospitals and schools," he said.

“In the eye of a storm such as this pandemic, no-one expects perfect decision-making, but we do need the wheels of government to start turning with more urgency as we look across the Irish Sea with envy at the political impetus behind the English construction sector, which is being primed to build the economy out of recession.”

The CEF pointed to green initiatives that could be implemented locally, similar to England, where home owners and social housing providers are being heavily subsidised to invest in upgrading the thermal efficiency of their properties.

“This would not only aid the environment and address fuel poverty, but also retain important skills within the industry and offer training opportunities of young people and unemployed,” Mr Spence said.

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