Build, back, better?


Boris Johnson has been a defiant Prime Minister throughout what could be considered one of the most unusual and challenging periods in history. Never far from a hard hat photo opportunity Mr Johnson has prevailed over a host of high-profile construction projects and promised to Build Back Better. Ian Weinfass at Construction News walks us through BJ’s legacy.

Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2

In his first major speech in July 2019, Johnson committed his government to deliver the Northern Powerhouse Rail link between Manchester and Leeds. It was the biggest construction project in the UK in the first half of this century and finally begun in earnest under him. Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out well for either that or HS2. After months of review, the eastern leg of HS2 had been scrapped and Northern Powerhouse Rail significantly downgraded. At the time, a spokesperson for the High-Speed Rail Group, members of which include Keltbray, Costain and Systra, said the U-turn “significantly dents confidence in the sector”.

Getting Brexit done

Moving the UK from the European Union was also delivered under Johnson, but, the impact of Brexit on the construction sector was grossly underestimated. From the start of 2021 workers from EU countries have been subject to the same immigration rules as those from elsewhere in the world, which coincides with some of the highest vacancy rates in the sector for years. The Government rejected calls to add bricklayers and masons to the Shortage Occupation List, which would cut red tape for migrant workers by relaxing some of the rules for those high-demand roles, enabling further recruitment from abroad.

Steering through the pandemic

Just a matter of months after he moved into Number 10, the global COVID-19 pandemic struck, causing unprecedented challenges for a modern administration. His government was praised for the support it gave business with the introduction of furlough, loan schemes, a suspension of winding up orders, and – after criticism the first time – explicitly stated construction work could and should continue when announcing subsequent lockdown measures in 2020 and 2021. Support for the construction sector was also made the centrepiece of his plans to “Build Back Better”, to boost the economy and jump start recovery from the shocks of the pandemic.

40 new hospitals

Johnson’s government pledged to build 40 new hospitals by 2030 – a ambitious target that has come under intense scrutiny from its inception, not least for counting extensions and already nearly built facilities (including two Carillion had started constructing) as ‘new’. The day after his resignation speech, healthcare body NHS Providers released a survey of hospital leaders that stated two in five schemes are behind schedule, while half do not believe they have enough funding for the jobs.

A bridge too far

After plans for a Garden Bridge across the Thames and a floating estuary airport floundered and eventually failed during his time as London Mayor, Johnson showed no lack of vision for headline-grabbing projects when he proposed a bridge linking Northern Ireland with Scotland. The concept drew political ridicule from the Scottish National Party and support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists. The scheme was soon to find itself in deep water and at a projected cost of £335bn a feasibility study said it was ‘impossible to justify’. A cheaper alternative in the form of a tunnel at £209bn was also laughed out. Either way a bridge or tunnel would be the longest of their kind ever constructed.