Time to unlock Welsh construction’s potential

Josh Miles explores the challenges facing the new National Infrastructure Commission for Wales

The Welsh construction sector is at an interesting juncture – brimming with potential but frustrated by delays.

The positive outlook for the sector can be seen in several proposed construction projects which have made the news.

The Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon , the Circuit of Wales, the M4 Relief Road and the Wylfa Newydd nuclear power station on Anglesey have all captured the headlines during 2016.

Each of these major projects presents great opportunities for Wales in terms of skills, employment and prestige. However, they are all currently waiting for the go-ahead.

Developers behind the Circuit of Wales project are currently revising a plan for the Welsh Government to support the race track.

Meanwhile the £1.3bn Tidal Lagoon is being reviewed by the UK Government and the £1.1 bn M4 Relief Road is subject to an independent public inquiry.

More recently, delays to approving the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station prompted Ken Skates AM, Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure, to seek assurances from the UK Secretary of State that Wylfa Newydd will go ahead as planned.

Despite these doubts and the inevitable uncertainty that has followed the EU referendum, there are good reasons to remain positive about Welsh construction.

There are major projects either underway or in the pipeline such as the £120m BBC Wales development in Cardiff; the A465 Heads of the Valleys dualling scheme; and the £600m South Wales Metro. These projects can help inspire confidence and capture the imagination of anyone interested in pursuing a construction career.

Then there are a range of exciting new commercial developments including S4C’s new headquarters in Carmarthen and the Menai Science Park on Anglesey. We should also not forget the countless house extensions and attic conversions across Wales and the bread and butter repair and maintenance work that keeps the sector ticking over.

The Welsh Government’s decision to establish a National Infrastructure Commission for Wales (NICW) is testament to the potential of the Welsh construction sector. The Commission is a great opportunity to prioritise skills in construction at the highest level of government and to unlock infrastructure opportunities.

This could mirror the work that we did with what is now called the Infrastructure and Major Projects Authority. This analysed the skills needed to deliver the UK National Infrastructure Plan and made a number of recommendations to ensure that the right skills were in place to deliver it.

For the NICW to succeed – and maximise economic and social returns – it must help identify, fund and procure major infrastructure investments. Its remit should include:

  1. Commit to long-term planning
    Uncertainty around major projects makes it difficult for firms to plan. Establishing certainty will be a crucial part of the Commission’s early work. Part of its remit should include a long-term pipeline of projects with realistic timescales.
  2. Create a National Infrastructure Plan for Skills
    To bridge the skills gap in construction we need to train the workforce through apprenticeships and upskilling. We also need to attract people back into construction to start a positive ripple effect across the economy. With so many big construction projects in the pipeline, a strong skills plan is crucial. CITB’s recent, Welsh Government-commissioned report into the labour requirements of the proposed Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, is an example of this. It concluded that although short-term labour capacity for the tidal lagoon is good, this depends on a number of factors – including the construction of other large-scale projects that could be underway at the same time, like Hinkley Point C and Wylfa Newydd.
  3. Comply with Welsh Government procurement policy
    Best practice in procurement should be built into NICW. This is particularly pertinent in relation to the Community Benefits policy, with large construction-related investment being a significant driver of Community Benefit outcomes.
  4. Put construction experts on the Commission’s board
    Specialist construction expertise is essential if NICW is to attract and finance major infrastructure projects in Wales. Specialist insight will ensure realistic estimations of costs and timescales on the delivery of major projects.

If the NICW does these four things, it will be well on its way to having a transformative impact on Welsh construction.

At such a crucial time for the construction industry, it is vital that the Welsh Government works with industry leaders, education and training providers to develop the world class construction skills the country needs. So when these big projects get going, we will be ready to deliver them.

Josh Miles is CITB Wales’ Public Affairs Officer. For more information on CITB Wales please visit: http://www.citb.co.uk/local-information/wales/

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