Viewpoint: Catriona Lingwood

May 1, 2020

Constructing Excellence in the North East is a regional business support organisation dedicated to improving industry performance. Here, its CEO, Catriona Lingwood, describes the immediate impact coronavirus has had on the local construction sector and why a focus on innovation and collaboration could limit long-term loses

Firstly, how is the team at Constructing Excellence in the North East (CENE) and how are you adapting your operations to the COVID-19 outbreak?

The team is doing well during these unprecedented times. We’re working from home – as most of those in our industry that can do, are doing, too. We’ve had to adapt to online meetings and have discovered Zoom, which will revolutionise meetings in the future. We’re also looking at new ways to engage our members via webinars and we’re working with partner organisations on new offerings.

Constructing Excellence is a platform that encourages industry improvement through innovation and collaboration. How is this manifesting itself in the current climate?

CENE is updating our members with best and most current industry advice, which comes mainly from the Construction Leadership Council (CLC), Construction Industry Council (CIC) and a variety of Government Departments, including BEIS (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy). The current pandemic is forcing the industry to think differently and, by default, innovative ways to meet and move projects forward will become more commonplace. I’m already seeing people and companies pulling together collaboratively during this difficult time to share best practice and make donations of suitable PPE to the NHS.

What is the most pressing challenges for the North East construction industry and what is CENE advice around this?

At the moment, it’s all about surviving the current situation while maintaining credible capability so we can be ready to respond to any emergency and essential works required. Once restrictions are lifted, we need to respond quickly and effectively. Historically, the industry has been good at bouncing back but we must take this time to make sure we’re ready. Our plea is that clients, contractors, consultants and sub-contractors take a pragmatic approach to damages and loss claims they are all suffering. One area of the sector shouldn’t be made to carry the burden. We can’t get tied up in litigation as no one wins. If the industry is reasonable with one another, we will all come through this healthier and with stronger bonds.

Construction is often a sector that suffers disproportionately during times of crisis. What is your outlook at the moment?

A construction industry survey (March 22-26, 2020) reported 46 per cent of companies would struggle to maintain a viable business if the market remains depressed for more than three months. So it appears that, in the short and medium-term, there could be a substantial impact on the sector. Job losses, business closures and severe loss of capacity are all strong possibilities. But the long-term impact will most likely be the emergence of improved working practices and patterns. There will be more focus on innovation and collaborative working – and so the North East’s instinct for innovation and finding a way in challenging environments could pay dividends for the sector.

The Government announced a number of measures to support businesses. Which ones are most prevalent to the construction sector and what more support would you like to see?

All Government schemes will play a part in helping the sector navigate the next two months while longer term support around existing campaigns such as no or low VAT on refurbishments, housing land incentives, investment in skills proliferation would be welcomed. Furloughing is important and I hope companies take advantage of it to ensure we can retain our expertise and people once the country starts to recover.

There was a lot of conflicting interpretations about what work was considered essential after the lockdown announcement – with a lot of construction projects initially continuing to operate. What was the experience in the North East?

Many construction sites in the North East closed after the lockdown was announced but the letter from The Rt Hon Alok Sharma MP, Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy [to the UK’s construction sector] did not make it clear as to what was deemed essential working. Even other Government ministers and the Mayor of London were not in agreement! A list of essential work was produced but there was still confusion. I believe essential to mean, ‘life-critical’, including works on hospitals such as the NHS Nightingale Hospital in London and others such hospitals around the UK. Also utility providers that provide an essential services, such as heating in homes, must continue to support their customers and communities. We’re now a few weeks into lockdown and it looks as though more sites will be able to reopen soon as long as they’re able to put PHE SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) working practices in place.

G4C is a CE initiative that champions the younger generation working in contraction. How will they play their part in ensuring the recovery of the industry?

I believe that the young talent in our industry – who are championed by our Generation4Change (G4C) – will accelerate change by bringing forward new ideas, ways of working and true innovation.

Do you think this pandemic will change construction forever?

It will immediately change and challenge hierarchies and many norms of working with virtual meetings, virtual inspections and more offsite manufacturing becoming the norm. It will also improve collaborative behaviours and reduce elitism and favouritism, while the increased use of technologies will help improve and spawn higher levels of innovation. Hopefully, it will be realised that people are the sector’s biggest asset and how we treat them during this crisis will be remembered. Those companies that are working hard to retain and furlough staff, and clients that are working collaboratively with their contractors and sub-contractors to shut down sites with no penalties and pay them for works completed.

Constructing Excellence in the North East

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