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Insights

12 May 2020

‘Out of site but not out of mind’

Housebuilders felt compelled to shut their sites quickly due to the restrictions imposed by the Government in its response to the pandemic. 

However, despite the current uncertainty housebuilders are back on their feet. They are focusing on re-opening their sites and are trying to find ways to adjust to a new ‘normality’. 

Persimmon reopened their first sites on 27 April 2020. Bellway, Higgins and Taylor Wimpey followed on 4 May 2020. Redrow will start to mobilise sites on 11 May 2020 with a phased return to construction starting from 18 May 2020.  Berkeley Group is also considering re-opening their sites imminently. 

The Government is supporting the reopening of sites. Alongside a new set of safety protocols and policy guidance, the Government’s housing secretary, Robert Jenrick is urging more housebuilders to return to their sites stating that work in construction can and should continue as long as developers take careful consideration of the new public health guidance. 

What challenges do housebuilders face when re-opening sites? 

Firstly, there is a hole in the supply chain. China is the largest exporter of housing and construction materials. Most building facades and kitchen and bathroom appliances come from continental Europe. Due to the current pandemic, factories in these countries are largely closed and shipping is delayed, leading to shortages in construction materials and increased pricing. This alone may prompt housebuilders to rethink their supply chains and consider offsite manufacture where and if possible.

Secondly, there is a lack of personnel. With many companies in the UK furloughing staff, housebuilders are struggling to find third party contractors to carry out important site surveys and necessary building inspections, and to certify crucial construction steps. This particularly becomes an issue where sales of sites are dependent on certification of construction stages, such as Golden Brick or practical completion. Hopefully with a return to sites, the return of furloughed staff back to their work places will naturally follow, otherwise housebuilders may have to consider including clauses in sales contract that allow them to self-certify in case the third party contractor is not available. 

The biggest issue is however how to get workers back to the sites without comprising their health and safety. In times where adequate PPE is difficult to get, the only real option is for housebuilders to impose strict social distancing rules. 

So how do housebuilders achieve social distancing on a building site? 

The Construction Leadership Council addressed this by releasing their new set of site operating procedures on 14 April which advise on ‘Protecting your workforce during Coronavirus (Covid-19)’. These reflect on the ways in which employees should travel to work, on-site hygiene, site access and regress points and onsite procedures in relation to those displaying symptoms. It will be necessary for housebuilders to cross reference new business policies to ensure that updated rules are adhered to.   

Dave Jenkinson, Persimmon’s outgoing chief executive has already spent the past month testing new site protocols which incorporate necessary social distancing and protective measures which also include disciplinary measures for those individuals who fail to uphold the required standards.  

Bellway’s Jason Honeyman said that they would restart with selected tradesmen such as carpenters and plasterers, instead of builders using heavy machinery. Workers must drive to the sites instead of using public transport and training videos will be displayed to ensure safety.   

Taylor Wimpey and Redrow have also reflected on the importance of modifying their working practices to conform to the strict social distancing measures that are required. Alongside their strict safety measures, Redrow have issued an e-learning module for all employees, induction videos for subcontractors and created supervisor roles within their business structure to oversee the distancing measures. 

On Sunday afternoon, Boris Johnson declared that the government is going to begin easing the restrictions on the public as of Wednesday 13 May 2020. Furthermore, the Government, has since issued guidelines on how to implement social distancing at work places. These guidelines include staggered working shifts and break times, limiting physical face to face time and encouraging site visits via remote connection/working where possible.   

Lastly, we should not underestimate the importance of communication; maintaining connection and instilling positivity. It is important that there is team collaboration on and off site so that all those on a construction project are up to date and aware of policies and measures as and when they come into effect. 

Conclusion 

It is safe to say that housebuilders will not go back to the ways they were familiar with before the pandemic. Instead they are being forced to reinvent the way they work and function, to ensure that the ‘new normal’ around social distancing remains for the immediate future and is adapted according to revised Government guidance. As Jason Honeyman says “We have got to get people used to the new way of working. It is not for two weeks, it could be for 12 months.” 


This article was written by Senior Associate Juliane Lorenz and Trainee Solicitor Georgia Sutton. For more information, please contact Juliane on  +44 (0)20 7427 6409 or at juliane.lorenz@crsblaw.com or Georgia on +44 (0)20 7438 2246 or at georgia.sutton@crsblaw.com.

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