Constructing a future for the North East

September 3, 2020

Adam Aston, partner in the construction and engineering team at law firm Muckle LLP, shares insights into his career and the industry’s response to COVID-19

Over the past 14 years, I’ve seen some big changes. I joined Muckle LLP as a trainee in 2006, qualifying in the construction team in 2008 and progressing to partner in 2019. Over that time, the firm has continually grown and has modernised ahead of the game to meet market needs.

When I first joined, Muckle was based in the now-demolished Norham House, on Pilgrim Street in Newcastle. There were only two of us in the construction team. Now we’re in state-of- the-art, ‘agile’ offices, with a team of five lawyers, including two partners.

The nature of our work has also changed. When I entered the profession, construction legal work was more of a property spin-off. Now we’ve developed a specialised, stand-alone and highly successful construction practice, led by partner and team head Lucilla Waugh.

We have a very varied and wide-ranging workstream. This really keeps things fresh and interesting, and that’s why I genuinely love being part of this construction team.

Our construction projects include everything from corporate finance, banking, disputes and property so we’re often working alongside our other specialist legal teams at Muckle on major projects across the UK and overseas.

Our team works on projects across a wide variety of sectors, including health, education, sport and leisure, energy, health and all types of industrial, commercial, retail and residential accommodation.

We’re involved with some of the biggest projects in the North East, including the Newcastle Helix site and the city’s Central Station developments, so to say our work is diverse and wide-ranging is an understatement.

It’s been a busy time for our team. Currently, we’re working on some big student accommodation schemes across the country and landmark developments as far afield as Birmingham, Sheffield and London.

In lockdown, we were also appointed to one of the main public sector frameworks where work is now coming through to the team.

We were fortunate to be 100 per cent agile when the pandemic struck. Agile working is something the firm had been developing over the last four years and when COVID-19 arrived, we were able to pack up our Skype-enabled laptops and work from home, literally overnight, without any impact on our service levels.

Of course, the pandemic has adversely affected work levels across the legal sector and Muckle is no exception, but our agile culture and technology has equipped us well.

COVID-19 could help construction improve its image permanently. The sector is often considered out of touch, but it’s coped tremendously well with the challenges and opportunities presented by the pandemic.

Building Nightingale hospitals in a number of days shows just what can be achieved. I don’t believe that the construction industry got enough credit for that, but it was a fantastic achievement and one for which everyone involved should be extremely proud.

It’s great that the Prime Minister has committed to ‘build, build, build’ to upgrade Britain’s infrastructure and skills to fuel economic recovery. Let’s hope this filters through to the North East quickly.

Whether it’s road, rail or Metro links, we need good infrastructure to fuel the economy here. Transport and infrastructure are just two examples of where the region has historically been neglected. If you went to Manchester late last year, there were dozens of tower cranes on the horizon while there were only one or two in Newcastle.

Construction firms operate on minimal margins. While the Government has done lots to support business through the crisis, as the furlough scheme and various other support mechanisms come to an end, it’s absolutely critical that Government policy is shaped to support growth in our region.

Like all industries, there is no doubt that construction will be affected to some extent further down the line – primarily because it is so inextricably linked to hospitality, retail, infrastructure and the like, so there’s bound to be a knock-on effect.

But work levels appear to have remained fairly steady so far and I’ve been heartened that, where
there have been delays, landlords, contractors, financiers and developers seem to have worked together to get projects back on track without resorting to the black and white terms of their contract and often seeking pragmatic solutions to overcome resource shortages and the like.

I think that continuing to support each other in this way, with appropriate Government support and strategic investment, is the key to bouncing back. Perhaps the construction industry can even emerge stronger in the end.

Muckle LLP

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