South of the River – construction time again


Compass-SouthComment logo 2Have you noticed the cranes have started appearing again in Leeds?

Obviously I’m referring to building sites and not birds. I’m no ornithologist, but I don’t think cranes visit these islands do they? It’s construction time again as sites that have lain empty are being built on.

I overheard someone last week say “You know the recession’s over when the city centre looks like a building site”. Looking around South Leeds I have to ask “over for who?”

It isn’t just the city centre, there are sites on the South Bank, in Holbeck and Beeston (where I spotted two cranes yesterday) and of course they’ve only just finished building the Asda in Middleton.

Construction plays an interesting role in the economy. If you remember the start of this recession, building was one of the first things to stop. Developers lost confidence that anyone would buy what they were building. Construction can be a good way to start the economy moving again. It employs a lot of people, both on site and in the supply chain. They then spend their wages on food and other goods and economic activity builds up.

Perhaps we should look at what is being built. The sites dotted across Holbeck are council houses, the main site on the South Bank is a college (ironically, the Leeds College of Building) and it will be followed by a high school. At least one the cranes I saw in Beeston is expanding an existing primary school. We could also throw in the new police headquarters and park and ride on Elland Road. These are public sector projects, albeit many of them are funded through the Private Finance Initiative (PFI).

So has this vicious austerity government seen the light, gone all Keynesian and turned to state funding to boost the economy?

I don’t think so, you need to remember one thing. Construction takes a long time to happen. The actual building phase is the least of your problems; securing finance, planning permission, design work, losing your finance and securing new finance, redesigning to a different budget, getting planning permission on a different design … it all takes time. Many of these projects were started before the recession and put on hold when the banks failed.

Using construction to deal with social problems is fraught with difficulties. Social issues are much more fluid and change faster than construction projects can keep up with. I’ve been involved in projects to demolish unpopular housing. These were streets that were literally being abandoned, it’s hard to believe just a few years later with the current pressure on housing.

Here’s another example. They are not building one bedroom flats (or very few) amongst new council housing in Holbeck. They designed the scheme to meet tenants aspirations, then the government brought in the bedroom tax and demand for one bedroom properties rocketed. I think they did the right thing in pressing ahead, we need to get rid of the bedroom tax rather than build small properties that will be around for decades.

So construction is moving, if not booming yet. There are jobs and apprenticeships being created and I hope people in South Leeds are getting some of those opportunities. But that doesn’t mean the recession is over.

If you work in the public sector – and I’m not talking about doctors and teachers, I’m talking about binmen, cleaners, classroom assistants, etc – you haven’t had a pay rise in years. If you’re in the private sector have your hours got back to what you were working before the crash? Or are you on a ‘zero hours contract’, not knowing who much you might earn from week to week?

Jeremy Morton Aug13The economy might be turning, but the recession isn’t over round here.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.