Construction industry leaders have expressed cautious optimism about the sector's future beyond Covid-19 amid the rollout of state government construction stimulus packages and the fast-tracking of priority projects such as social housing and government infrastructure.
Despite construction sites being classified as "essential" services during the coronavirus shutdowns, builders, subcontractors, suppliers and developers across the nation have grappled with unforeseen conditions in delivering projects that would otherwise have run to schedule and without disruption.
Speaking as part of The Urban Developer's expert webinar series, Sarah Slattery, managing director of national quantity surveying firm Slattery, said the release of Building Victoria's "project fast-track" eligibility criteria could signal the beginning of a recovery period driven by projects with a social welfare agenda.
"It gave us a lot of confidence, it's aligned with what we're hoping to see in terms of affordable housing because of the social benefits as well—it's a great time to get our homeless in housing over the next couple of years.
"It will be interesting to see in the next few weeks what the other states do in terms of stimulus, but we're probably not expecting too many differences between the states," Slattery said.
It was to be hoped government projects in the areas of health, education and justice might be among those hand-picked by the states to help speed their economies through the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond, Slattery said.
Industry colleague Alison Mirams, chief executive of Sydney-based construction firm Roberts Pizzarotti, expressed a sense of gratitude for "enormously supportive" government initiatives as well as the unions industry bodies that joined forces to ensure continuity of work.
“They say every cloud has a silver lining, and there are certainly positives that we need to, as an industry, take out of this coronavirus period,” Mirams said.
With the industry learning to live with the “challenge” of social distancing on work sites—and the attendant slowdowns in productivity, particularly on more exposed projects such as high-rises, due to accessibility and people movement issues—attention has also turned to what the future pipeline of work will look like.
Hutchinson Builders associate director Jack Hutchinson said that while a lot of private development had been paused he was "definitely more comfortable now than a month ago".
Hutchinson said the Brisbane-based firm has benefited from picking up some “small state government projects that had been brought forward”.
Like Mirams, Hutchinson believes that government stimulus could go a long way to keeping people employed—and social housing initiatives as part of that are “a very good idea”.
The Victorian government has formed a taskforce identifying a pipeline of shovel-ready priority projects for fast-tracking that are aligned to “broader Victorian government policy objectives including affordable and social housing and emissions reduction”.
Building Victoria's Recovery Taskforce, which is overseeing the fast-tracking program, was spearheaded by planning minister Richard Wynne and treasurer Tim Pallas, and will initially focus on expediting planning approvals using ministerial powers, where decisions have been delayed due to coronavirus-related impacts on the planning system.
Led by former Lendlease Victoria head Roger Teale, Victorian Planning Authority chairwoman Jude Munro and chief executive of government agency Solar Victoria Stan Krpan, the taskforce has already given the green light to fast-track four large-scale projects for approval and commencement, in a bid to boost the state's pandemic-stricken economy.
In the spirit of collaboration that saw unions and the construction industry sector unite to keep construction sites open amid government-ordered coronavirus shutdowns, the taskforce will be guided by a steering committee involving representatives from industry peak bodies and unions to ensure workers' safety isn't compromised by the push for continuity of work on existing projects.
In New South Wales, the first tranche of a similar fast-tracking program for shovel-ready projects has been rolled out as part of the state government's planning system acceleration program.
Announcing the first 24 projects identified for expedited assessment, premier Gladys Berejiklian, said the program was key to the state's recovery post-Covid-19.
“By fast-tracking assessments, we will keep people in jobs and keep the construction industry moving as we ride out the Covid-19 pandemic and set our sights on economic recovery,” Berejiklian said.
Like their Victorian counterparts, submitted projects need to “deliver a public benefit, demonstrate an ability to create jobs during construction”.
Planning and Public Spaces minister Rob Stokes said decisions will be made on the first tranche of projects within the next four weeks.
“This will mean shovel-ready projects can get under way and the construction pipeline can continue to grow,” Stokes said.
Elsewhere, stimulus packages such as WA's Construction Panel and Queensland's "roads of strategic importance" roadworks initiative will bring some relief to the embattled construction and building sectors.