Over the decades since its founding at the start of the post-war era in 1945, the CEF has been a constant force throughout the many downturns, political crises and economic recessions that have hampered an otherwise steady, and even occasionally, buoyant sector of the local economy.
Those in this sector are nothing if not resilient and adaptable to ever-changing circumstances. The Covid-19 crisis is different. This crisis has affected every aspect of the construction sector in every market segment and is still being assessed in terms of what the new normal level of activity will look like. Against this background, the CEF has seen an enhanced level of engagement with members beyond the normally active committees and interest groups.
The advent of virtual meetings has quickly become the ‘new norm’. Members value the efficiency of meetings and ability to engage with fellow members as well as interacting with a range of patrons and partners delivering topical webinars on legal, financial, insurance matters and, dare we mention it, Brexit. The early frustrations with the imperceptible pace of a return of government has been replaced by deep-rooted anxiety that our Executive are unable or unwilling to commit to infrastructure investment at the very time 30,000 workers are more reliant than ever upon public spending.
Put simply, there is a real and present danger that this Executive will fail to spend the budgets handed to them in March by Westminster and be forced to hand unspent monies back to the Treasury. That will be inexplicable to taxpayers who can see, all around them, the enormous investment deficit that arose during the recent three year absence of our local elected representatives.
Whether it is the near standstill of water infrastructure, the need for modern capacity within our health estate, the upgrade of our dated schools, addressing the ever growing demand for housing or the need for genuine enhancements to green transport and urban landscaping; that expenditure is needed now.
With the looming redundancies faced by our industry, it will be indefensible to see ring-fenced public sector capital budgets not being spent while experienced and younger employees are being let go. This is to a very large extent avoidable. We require a political will and serious intent like that being shown from Dublin, Edinburgh and London where the value of construction as an economic multiplier is recognised and prioritised. Contrast with NI where, three months after submitting our Construction Recovery proposals to Department of Finance, we still await meaningful response, never mind actions.
NI has always had the potential as a small area with a small population, to become a model of good governance and yet it seems 75 years after the CEF was formed, the same arguments must be wheeled out again and again to address tired old failings in how we are governed. How refreshing it would be if our Executive would focus more on the wider benefits to NI and less on preserving the status quo.