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What clients can do to keep work going on

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We’re seeing proactive and inventive approaches from clients and local authorities, but more needs to be done if we’re to keep projects running to programme, says PRP’s Brendan Kilpatrick 

Following the outbreak of coronavirus, we’re now well in to a new era of working from home. We have now arrived at the new normal, with some claiming to be working more efficiently than ever.

Despite this, our clients are becoming increasingly worried about the impact of Covid-19 on their businesses. A drop in sales of new homes has had an immediate impact on cash flow. Our clients have also been understandably reluctant to enter into building contracts and then be left ‘holding the can’ when building sites shut down.

This happened independently of government advice, with a clutch of national and regional contractors doing the right thing and shutting sites to protect their workforce and supply chains. But we all know that even closing a small construction site of 10 houses has a tentacular effect on the livelihood and wellbeing of the team of people required to design and build these dwellings.

Unfortunately, the closures also applied to work on buildings clad with combustible materials, inside which are crammed more people than ever. Alternative safety protocols must be put in place as a priority to protect residents.

On estate regeneration initiatives, consultation should be devised so that viewing, feedback and questions from residents can be carried out online

Just as nations’ fates are in their own hands in the battle against Covid-19, we have it within our power to devise methods for continuing our work in the sector. We have already seen much evidence of proactive and inventive approaches from clients and local authorities. But more needs to be done if we’re to keep projects running to programme in the face of such unprecedented adversity.

For a start, planning pre-applications and design and quality review panels need to be conducted remotely. This can also happen with planning committee meetings. It is already happening in relation to pre-application meetings. Planning authority officers can assist in speeding up the process by remaining completely objective in determining the design quality or planning applications. And there is certainly no time for local planning authority officers to impose their preferred external architects on a project when there is no reason to do so. The presumption must be in favour of development.

We also need to use pre-contract start agreements (PCSAs) so projects can continue for a three-to-four-month period before building contracts are signed. This would help ring-fence clients’ contractual liability.

On estates and other regeneration initiatives, consultation strategies should be devised so that viewing, feedback and questions from residents can be carried out online. Special provisions can be made for hard-to-reach residents.

Strategic land sites need to be fast-tracked in order to help smooth the curve of recovery after the emergency. Executive control must be given at Homes England to fast-track consultant procurement and speed the release of land for much-needed housing development. Already in such short supply, there will be a spike in demand for new housing when we emerge, blinking, from our cloistered refuges.

We will win the fight against Covid-19 but we’ll lose the battle against the housing crisis if we don’t address this.

The challenge and the threats to health and the economy are huge but with optimism, hard work and perseverance, and the support announced by government for employees and the self-employed, we can come through this relatively unscathed.

Brendan Kilpatrick is senior partner at PRP

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