SMEs building beyond COVID-19

Charlie Scherer MCIOB

I’m late writing this blog. We wanted to reflect in January following December’s election, but then decided to wait for the Chancellor’s March Budget spending announcements. Barely did we have time to put ‘pen to paper’ when the global COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Here is how the Helix team has responded to the crisis and how we are planning to emerge stronger from it.

A business blog doesn’t do justice to those NHS and other key workers in the frontline, so our first message is very clear: ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’. We have ceased all non-essential activity because our social responsibility and duty of care to our colleagues must be placed higher than our economic priorities during these unprecedented times. Our people are our most important asset, so this was a straightforward decision for us.

Planning for the new normal

Of course, our frontline business is building homes and all the physical, face-to-face activities associated with our projects and developments. We will be ready to re-commence our commitments to our clients, having adapted quickly to the ‘new normal’. The current modus operandi of video conferencing and more efficient use of technology has probably been a wake-up call for us. We are seeing a better relationship between input and outcome, and this has to be good for our people’s mental health – not to mention a reduced commute and carbon footprint.

Tenders continuing

Perhaps surprisingly, current tender activity appears not to have been materially affected by the lockdown, although we have experienced delays in actual orders or feedback because of depleted resource levels. Also, the pre-construction and planning activities on our larger housing projects have the continued support of our clients. This investment is critical if, as a sector, we are to pick up activity as sharply as it dropped away. This is equally important to help ensure SMEs, such as Helix, can sustain jobs beyond the stop-gap term of the government’s furlough scheme.

Maintaining momentum

For the housing sector as a whole, during the first few weeks of 2020, I sensed a renewed confidence in the ability for public and private sector to deliver on the government’s housing targets: public/private joint ventures, ramping up of delivery using modern methods of construction (MMC) and more SME activity. 

It will take a courageous but responsible sector to continue backing these delivery models – we will still need them. Although the way we use our homes may change post-COVID-19 (more space for home working requirements), the pent-up demand for good-quality, affordable housing to rent and buy will not go away. 

Key role for SMEs

As the government has recognised, the SME sector has an important role to play in increasing national house building capacity. There has been talk of a government stimulus for more key worker accommodation as we emerge from the lockdown – I hope this proves to be the case. As I mentioned above, the flow of capital is so important for companies like ours to continue to invest in jobs, infrastructure and delivery capability. Further, if the development sector as a whole starts to become a battlefield for contractual differences there will be no winners. Never before, has it been so important to maintain the equilibrium through open communication and the ethos of partnership working. Collaboration should not only be peer-to-peer, but throughout the whole thread of the supply chain. 

Building can turbo boost the economy

There was a well-trodden statistic quoted for a few years after the 2008 financial crisis, that every £1 spent on construction creates £2.62 in the UK economy. In February of this year, the CBI upgraded this to £2.92, where 90% of that stays in the UK. In a period where we expect to see unemployment rise, this underscores the relevance of building, construction and development becoming the ‘turbo boost’ to bind together the social and political priorities of jobs, housing and a sustainable economy.

Less factual, is the significance of displaying confidence and optimism. I am inspired by the acts of our health and care workers in this regard and how they clearly motivate each patient’s individual battle with this terrible disease. We must never take them for granted (hence the key worker housing point) and translate this optimism as a sector, into the post COVID-19 arena.

Finally, on behalf of the Helix board, I would like to express our most genuine gratitude to our people, supply chain, clients and consultants for their pragmatic and loyal support over the last few weeks. We hope everyone stays fit and well over the next few months.

Charlie Scherer MCIOB is a Non-Executive Director at Helix