Less Cash, More Work: Chairman's Report 2014

Less Cash, More Work: Chairman's Report 2014

A crystal ball would have been useful throughout the 2013 trading year as the industry struggled with the challenges that spilt over from the year before! Much of the work that should have been signed off by the English Heritage Lottery Fund never materialised and that left companies struggling to manage forecasts and the ability to service customer’s needs. It became clear that the industry found it difficult to plan work due to the continuing austerity. Clients worked within very tight budgets, which left no tuck or contingencies for unforeseen or urgent work. As the year moved forward it became clear that in many cases only work that was absolutely necessary was put out for tender for a fixed price.

This created massive problems because if a job was started and urgent repairs uncovered then the client often wanted that extra work done within the original agreed price. This left estimators and surveyors re-budgeting to complete the build or restoration within the original budget – and that’s very much the state of the trade as we moved into 2014. But it’s not all doom and gloom as the dawn of a new day approaches. Over the last five years the pot of cash available through Heritage funding has been shrinking but this year sees the re-introduction of Lottery funding, which should see money flowing back into heritage work.

However, everyone who works in this sector wonders if sensible strategies will be adopted by clients to realistically handle the mountain of work that is building up, much of it unseen and seriously damaging. Budget patching and emergency repairs can actually accelerate deterioration, which eventually leads to heavy costs to put it right. Water getting into a fabric is one thing but once it soaks into stone and lime rendering and freezes then thaws it splits, flakes and shatters turning a professional repair into a much costlier replacement. Work that is shelved today to meet a tight immovable budget just costs two or three times more tomorrow!

Companies are facing rising costs despite fierce budget controls. Labour values stay pretty much static but material and associated costs continue to rise. The need to meet strict Health and Safety demands are a heavy unseen cost, which have to be factored into all tenders. The heritage industry acknowledges that the safety of their workforce is paramount, and we all want to see ideal working conditions for our staff…but common sense has to rein.

Health and Safety are often imposing office rules to building sites. I believe that the men should have what they need to do the job and that it is not feasible to supply amenities that H and S often demand on sites in the middle of nowhere. There is no synergy between how we run our sites in the UK to those in Europe. Red tape and a lack of flexibility just make the trade more difficult.

On the upside, despite seeing some big heritage company’s fold over the past few years, others have emerged from the dust – often staffed by craftsmen and managers who lost their jobs when the companies they worked for went out of business. This is heartening because it means the skills base has been retained. And this is what fires my enthusiasm and why I enjoy my role as chairman of the Men of the Stones. I feel that I am returning something to the industry and encouraging the ethos of what we do throwing off the ‘Bob the Builder’ image.

Somebody has got to be the flag-bearer and I am pleased to be able to take up the challenge because I am passionate about the diversity of the trade. To be honest I am driven by encouraging the craftsmanship and getting a buzz out of retaining and improving things for the future, which I believe is paramount.

Mel Russ