Scotland’s construction industry to begin phased restart approach

NICOLA Sturgeon has announced that construction is to be permitted to begin its phased approach to restarting next week (May 28) as part of phase one of Scotland’s lockdown being eased.

Scotland’s first minister said, “The construction industry will be able to carefully implement steps one and two of its six step restart plan, which it has developed with us. However, let me be clear, that there must be genuine partnership with trade unions – this can only be done, if it is done safely.”

In a letter to Ken Gillespie, chair of Construction Scotland, Kevin Stewart MSP wrote, “In terms of your proposed Phase 0, I understand that work is progressing well on preparing site assessments for Covid-19 modifications and developing the necessary new procedures, building on the valuable experience gleaned from ongoing essential works such as Scotland’s temporary coronavirus hospital, the NHS Louisa Jordan.

“We also believe that, subject to positive outcome from the review on May 28th we are now ready to move to your Phase 1, the advance preparation of non-essential sites. The work in this stage will facilitate physical distancing and enhanced hygiene, including Installing new or expanding existing site welfare and toilet facilities, “one way” systems and marking 2m distancing throughout the site.

“Depending on the evidence emerging from this initial stage and subject to Health and Safety statutory requirements being satisfied, we can then look forward to commencing Phase 2 –Soft Start, with its phased return of a proportion of the workforce. I note your commitment that no element of non-essential works requiring the use of PPE above the standard industry use, will commence at this stage. We will also require you to consult with government for agreement before progressing to Phase 2, and in any case will not approve such a move until a minimum of 2 weeks after we publish updated advice, though we will keep this under review.”

Mr Stewart continued by writing that progress beyond the first two steps will depend on the industry’s ability to “Demonstrate fully compliant working practices in place, the confidence of the workforce and its trade union representatives in those arrangements, and wider supporting health data”.

Elliot Robertson, chief executive of Robertson said, “The UK’s construction sector has one of the best health and safety systems in Europe. Since the beginning of this outbreak, we have enhanced those processes with specific Covid-19 measures to further protect employees and other stakeholders. At Robertson the health, safety and wellbeing of our employees, customers, supply chain and all other stakeholders is, and always will be, our number one priority. I have been involved with the Construction Leadership Forum to inform Scottish Government of how the construction sector can conduct a safe restart and over the last ten weeks, the Forum in consultation with Health Protection Scotland, HSE and other statutory consultees have made thorough preparations to enable a return to work and we stand well positioned to do so with immediate effect. We welcome the decision that has been taken today.

“With construction and housebuilding operations on both sides of the border, we have found ourselves in a situation where we have been working safely in England but unable to do the same in Scotland. Meanwhile, our Facilities Management business has been operating throughout the pandemic, across the UK, delivering services to many front line customers utilising our safe operating procedures. It is our hope that the proposed phases are rolled out in a timely manner and that we receive the green light for safe operations to resume in the very near future.”

Vaughan Hart, managing director of Scottish Building Federation (SBF) said, “I welcome the fact the Scottish Government have given priority to the construction industry returning to work but many of our members have already spent the past weeks undertaking the kind of preparatory work envisaged to ensure sites are safe and will be ready to begin building works through a “soft start” either immediately or by the end of May.  It is critical the Scottish Government gives the go-ahead for that as soon as reasonably possible and then for the further stages of the plan so that construction can begin to gradually increase activity whilst keeping site safety as the top priority.

 “As urged by the first minister, the Scottish Building Federation will continue to work closely with the trades unions to ensure collective collaboration which will also assist with the safe return to work. We have a long standing working relationship with the trades unions and welcome their support and collaboration as the industry returns to work.”

Tracy Black, CBI Scotland director said, “Businesses across Scotland will welcome the publication of a route map for economic restart that puts safety first. Unless people feel safe, employees won’t return to work, customers will stay away and the restart will falter, putting people’s livelihoods at further risk. The four phases outlined provide a helpful starting point for firms preparing for the restart and already working hard to ensure their operations are as safe as possible for staff and customers. For the Scottish construction industry, which has been hit so hard by the crisis, the resumption of activity in phase one will come as a significant relief.

“While businesses recognise that timings may vary based on scientific evidence, the principles and guidance that underpin the restart should be transparent and as consistent as possible across the UK. With the UK Government having already provided a helpful template looking at workplace settings, firms will be keen to see an acceleration of specific workplace guidance for Scotland that follows the same approach.

“Like the rest of the UK, Scotland faces months of change and challenge. A unified approach to reopening the economy – involving both governments, business and employee representatives – is vital to instilling public confidence and getting the economy back on its feet.”

Hew Edgar, head of UK Government relations and city strategy at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), praised the Scottish Government for its ‘clear messaging’ on health measures. However, Mr Edgar asked for clearer guidance in regard to the housing market.

He said, “The report mentions that we will enter the first two phases of the six-phase return plan for construction, and we welcome the government’s plans to engage with unions over the safe return to work. Likewise, the provision of this timeline is valuable, and will be welcomed by industry– particularly for supply chain management – as it will allow businesses to bring staff back from furlough and mobilise supply chains as they begin to recommence activity. However, we have heard from many industry participants that this six-phase plan is not widely available or easy to locate. As such, we would urge the government to undertake a programme of awareness raising.

“What is lacking in this document is clearer guidance with regard to the housing market: ‘Phase 1: Preparing for the safe reopening of the housing market; and Phase 2: Relaxation of restrictions on housing moves’ are not clear enough, and this ambiguity will cause confusion on what is, and what is not, allowed.

“Whilst the First Minister stated that further guidance will be developed, which we look forward to, the housing market would significantly benefit from greater clarity on when operators can renew their activities in a market which is so important to the economy.

“Indeed, the last thing the housing market needs is a creeping delay arising from an ambiguous restart date. Clearer messaging would allow residential property businesses to bring furloughed staff back at the right time; for tenants to assemble a deposit; and for potential buyers to arrange a mortgage. This would mean that when the restrictions are lifted, the market could hit the ground running as a means to contribute to what we hope will be a V-shaped recovery.

“Now that the route map is published, the government and parliament should look to the post-pandemic recovery and what levers can be utilised to rebuild confidence and stability, as well as boost activity in the built environment. Government and parliament should also look at how we can use this opportunity to reflect on existing practices and assess whether Scotland can reset its approach to the built environment in order to align with a green recovery.”

Robin Blacklock, chair of the Scottish Property Federation commented, “We welcome these steps towards re-starting our economy, but there are still considerable questions to be asked of government around the pace and processes for construction sites to reopen.

“We need to see published guidance on the steps contractors and developers need to be making now, in order to integrate these into the plans already being made for a safe and gradual return to work. We also note the difference between outdoor and indoor working and there are examples where key indoor work may be done safely in line with Covid-19 safety operating procedures. These works will include fit-out operations for businesses and retailers that will be necessary for their successful reintroduction to the economy as the route map unfolds.

Nicola Barclay, chief executive of trade body Homes for Scotland, said, “It is obviously good news that we are now seeing steps put in place to relax lockdown restrictions but the construction industry has spent the last 9 or so weeks working on a restart plan to enable a safe return to work as soon as it was considered appropriate and which has been agreed with the Scottish Government.  There is no reason to delay the start of a phased return beyond next Thursday. It is no exaggeration to say that to wait any longer could prove too late for many businesses and jobs.

“The biggest question still remains in relation to the 6000 households currently waiting to move into what are largely complete homes requiring only internal finishing touches that can be easily and safely undertaken.  There is absolutely no mention of how or when they can be completed. With all these customers still stuck in limbo, they have been given no indication today of when they can move on with their livesand government needs to urgently provide further clarity on this.

“The route map also states that ‘we are preparing for the safe reopening of the housing market’.  We have already been working on this with other relevant stakeholders such as The Law Society, RICS, UK Finance and Registers of Scotland, and, other than the immediate updating of guidance on moving home that is required, there is nothing now preventing this.”