Construction sector loses patience with Brexit indecision

The markets’ patience with Brexit related indecision appears to be wearing thin, as the results of the Q2 2019 RICS Construction and Infrastructure Market Survey shows output growth accelerating, and workload and employment expectations gathering pace for the year ahead.

This quarter, a net balance of 14% more respondents in the South West reported an increase in construction workloads, with workloads in public housing increasing at the fastest pace. The rise in workloads in social housing (+43% up from +21%) suggests that the lifting of the HRA borrowing cap may have begun to influence sentiment in social housing construction.

Following a slow start to Q1, workloads in the South West infrastructure sector improved in Q2 and there was also modest growth in commercial and public non-housing activity. Looking to the year ahead, workloads across the country are expected to be most resilient in the private housing and infrastructure sectors with 27% and 25% more surveyors, respectively, anticipating activity to rise rather than fall.

Despite this, business enquiries for new projects or contracts were relatively stable, with 6% more respondents reported an increase rather than a decrease over the past three months – down from Q1. However, capacity continues to constrain potential activity with 46% more surveyors having to increase headcount in the past three months to support new work, despite the ongoing recruitment challenges.

Other obstacles to growth cited by respondents across the UK include access to finance, which continues to be the biggest impediment to building activity (69%). Although 18% more respondents reported a deterioration in credit conditions over the past three months, year-ahead expectations have become somewhat less restrictive.

Despite an increase in hiring intentions, skill shortages continue to pose a significant challenge as well with over two thirds saying there is a shortage of quantity surveyors in the South West. This is underscored by rising labour costs with a net balance of 73% of respondents foreseeing an increase in such expenditures over the coming twelve months.

Within infrastructure, the energy, rail and communications subsectors are expected to see the strongest expansion in output over the coming twelve months. However, despite the potential of additional Government spending, nearly two-thirds of respondents were of the view that infrastructure projects will stall without access to funding from the European Investment Bank.

Despite the continued Brexit uncertainty, the RICS market confidence indicator – a composite measure of workload, employment and profit margin expectations over the coming twelve months – rebounded to 21% (from 13% in Q1). Investments related to equipment, software and worker training are expected to gather pace as well. However, for the fourth consecutive quarter, profit margin expectations remained flat and tender price expectations eased.

RICS Senior Economist, Jeffrey Matsu, says:

“Three years on and the long, unrelenting shadow of Brexit uncertainty is testing the mettle of the construction industry. After a prolonged period of delays and underinvestment, businesses now appear to be fed up and are proceeding cautiously with new hiring and intentions to invest. While much of this is likely to be backfilling or maintaining existing capacity, the requirements of larger projects such as Hinkley Point C and HS2 are constraining growth opportunities elsewhere. With the range of possible outcomes related to Brexit as wide as ever, we expect to see continued volatility in the construction output data but in the meanwhile foresee workload activity stabilising.”