Setting the scene for a future recovery

A return to business as usual for the construction sector isn’t a realistic proposition and the new normal is likely to look different from before, argues Hannah Vickers

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity for everyone at ACE. In between setting up remote offices across the country, we’ve been in daily contact helping members small and large through what is, it is probably fair to say, an unexpected crisis. I’m a firm believer that in times like these, organisations like ACE need to come into their own and truly demonstrate their worth to the industry, society and, of course, their members. Hopefully we have done so.

We have been in almost daily contact with officials at BEIS, HM Treasury and with wider industry stakeholders through the Construction Leadership Council, representing the interests of all of our members, large and small. 

More than this, I’m rightfully proud of all the work we’ve done to help our members in the short and medium term. My team were straight out of the blocks writing letters to the chancellor, distilling and communicating the business support available to members and producing a series of webinars at short notice. I’m delighted to see that as a key communication channel for the industry Infrastructure Intelligence played its part too.

These conversations have progressed and now, naturally, they have started to turn to economic recovery. For many it will probably be too early to talk about specifics. However, given the nature of our work, and our industry’s key role as a catalyst for economic growth and societal impacts, this means we have a responsibility to lay the groundwork now. This isn’t just about business recovery it is about how we can support the recovery of the whole of the UK.

I’m sure that many leaders will be feeling a guttural-instinct for ‘business as usual’ to resume. 

While I can sympathise with the urge, we need to be wary of “returning to normal” and balance this thinking with an understanding of what the new normal might be. The impact of Covid-19 felt in just a few weeks of lockdown can already be seen if you look closely enough and this should guide any proposals we put forward to the government for driving prosperity and a return to growth. Of course, we will also need to keep in mind overarching ambitions of the current administration in meeting the Net Zero target by 2050 while levelling up economic growth across the UK.

For example, housing will be one area which many will push as a panacea for both our industry and society. Following both world wars there was a renewed focus on building homes and a similar approach could work today. However, we need to ensure that the lessons of the lockdown are applied in terms of design. Society has experienced extended working from home and will now be demanding that all our homes are drenched in natural light, that they have access to outdoor spaces and that through energy efficiency they are both affordable to run and comfortable. 

To nurture the sense of community that has recently been reignited, we’ll need investment in social infrastructure such as schools, nurseries, GP surgeries and libraries that helps to create a true sense of community. Having become used to living without traffic over these last few weeks we’ll need to do everything possible to ensure that we don’t return to congestion and air pollution, especially in our big cities. The answer, of course, is more integrated transport planning – investing in cycling networks, buses and rail as a system.

Furthermore, with people now used to working remotely and businesses embracing digital transformation we will need substantial investment in digital infrastructure too.

Of course, all of the above will be welcomed by our members and the wider industry as presenting us with plenty of business opportunities and as designers and engineers we’re exceptional at putting forward tailored strategic plans  and compelling designs for the built environment which can meet the new higher standards that society will expect from us.

Where we sometimes struggle is in how we turn this into a compelling vision which meets society’s demands while acting collectively to improve our industry and which, crucially, cannot be ignored by the government.

Hannah Vickers is chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE).

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