Supporting each other to tackle construction supply chain issues

Work in progress on a Barnes Construction site Picture: Barnes Construction

Work in progress on a Barnes Construction site Picture: Barnes Construction - Credit: Archant

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating many issues and challenges for the local construction industry. Sue Wilcock looks at its impact on materials and the supply chain.

Sue Wilcock Picture: Warren Page

Sue Wilcock Picture: Warren Page - Credit: Archant

Everyone is getting used to working to the new rules around COVID-19. However, due to the diversity of operations and the range of professions included in the supply chain, those working in the construction sector are finding it more challenging than most.

Now that sites are back open, what effect is the pandemic having on accessing the people and materials that are needed to get the industry fully up and running?

“As a local business, we have always been mindful of working collaboratively with others, to build a robust and non-adversarial supply chain,” explained Mark Hart, joint MD of Barnes Construction. “But undoubtedly the pandemic has added to the pressure.

“For us, as well as getting used to working within the new site operating procedures around social distancing and hygiene, we are now finding we have added concerns with regard to profiteering around essential supplies, and the real possibility that there will be insolvencies within the construction sector.

“It’s pretty tough right now and there are many things we’re having to deal with around reduced productivity levels.

“So, an added aggravation is the profiteering going on around essential supplies. As an example, we are being quoted £8 for a face mask which cost us 80p before the pandemic. This means we have to spend time best used on something else, shopping around to find the PPE equipment we need.”

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Architectural practice, Wincer Kievenaar is also having problems. Director Craig Western said: “We are struggling to get hold of PPE and the prices are going up. There are some who are taking advantage of the situation, as we discovered when we were sourcing some Perspex screens for our office workstations and we were quoted £300 to £400 each! We decided to buy the plastic sheets from a builders’ merchant for £30 each and made them up ourselves.”

However, generally when it comes to getting hold of building products, things are looking more positive.

Mr Hart continued: “With UK manufacturers now back open and productivity levels onsite reduced, the demand for materials is something we are managing. The only issues will be with imported products, or companies stockpiling and creating scarcity in the market.”

James Potter is MD of structural engineering design business Superstructures. His view is that the earlier problems with availability of materials are flagged up within the supply chain, the better.

“The key is good and timely communication; everyone needs to be talking to each other so we can plan ahead.

“If there is a problem with getting hold of the specified product from the usual supplier, and there are no alternatives, then we can step in and redesign the project to include materials that are more readily available. However, to do this effectively we need more than a couple of days’ notice.”

Mr Western agreed: “It’s really important to talk to people and understand if there are issues. Then you can plan and provide the support needed.”

This sentiment doesn’t just apply to materials, but also to the people and businesses working in the supply chain, who through no fault of their own are facing the possibility of going out of business.

Mr Hart explained: “Good subcontractors weren’t in plentiful supply pre COVID-19, so it would be a shame if, because of this crisis, some fell by the wayside. Insolvency will only exacerbate the existing shortage of skills in the industry and store up more problems for the future.”

So, what’s the answer?

“The extension to furloughing has helped immensely, but undoubtedly, it’s members of the supply chain working together collaboratively to support each other that’s the key,” Mr Hart said.

“Every single business in construction is going to suffer, so I think it’s important that we all should be looking at how we can protect each other.

“Cashflow is the crux to keeping all businesses trading, so all along, we have kept our commercial operations open; working on tenders and procurement, and paying our supply chain.”

Mr Western agreed: “Paying suppliers and maintaining the opportunities to quote for new work are vital. When designing a scheme, our first action is to get our consultants to undertake surveys and site investigations. For obvious reasons over recent weeks this activity has been curtailed, but we have still been working so we could hit the ground running as soon as lockdown was lifted for construction.”

Mr Potter has found the support from his supply chain a vital component of keeping him motivated during the crisis. “With all the negativity around, both in terms of the virus itself and other personal and business issues, it’s great to talk to other professionals. I’ve had some useful conversations about what’s happening in the market and in people’s businesses.

“We all need to pull together as an industry and share our findings. We also need to keep the flow of payments going as we’re all in the same boat. Our clients are being kind and we are being kind to our supply chain.”

SJCC urges that project pipeline keeps flowing

Made up of representatives from the main construction professions, the Suffolk Joint Construction Committee (SJCC) has been working on behalf of the county’s construction industry.

A key concern is that the pipeline of public sector work is delayed or cancelled due to the pandemic, as this will only cause further difficulty throughout the supply chain.

“The SJCC is supportive of the complex decisions being made by businesses working in the construction sector, as society comes out of lockdown and as the supply chain and manufacturers remobilise,” said Martin Liddell, who sits on the committee representing IStructE.

“A significant proportion of work carried out is for the public sector. Therefore, it’s vital for the long-term future of Suffolk’s construction industry that we keep the pipeline of these projects flowing and they are not delayed or cancelled because of the pandemic.”

This story is in association with Barnes Construction, Wincer Kievenaar, Superstructures and Suffolk Joint Construction Committee.