Abrupt downturn in the construction sector

Jul 28, 2020

Construction has been hit hard by the pandemic, but with the right initiatives and supports it could also play a pivotal role in the country’s eventual recovery, writes Annette Hughes.

Ireland entered 2020 in a reasonably strong economic position – preliminary GDP figures for 2019 suggest it was the fastest growing economy in the EU27 over three years, with almost full employment. However, the shock following COVID-19 has been unprecedented.

The latest EY economic forecasts (released in May) expect GDP to fall by 11.1% this year. It is envisaged that government borrowing, as opposed to tax increases and public spending cuts, will finance the restart of the economy, predicted to rebound by 6.7% in 2021. Consequently, a benign international lending environment will be crucial, and a budget deficit close to €30 billion – around 10% of GDP – will be required in 2020 (Department of Finance), depending on the evolution of the virus.

While the construction sector had been enjoying a consistent, healthy performance at the start of 2020, it was halted abruptly following the onset of the pandemic. All construction and housebuilding sites closed for seven weeks on 28 March, apart from around 35 social housing sites that were deemed essential. Although sites have been re-opening since 18 May, only a slow recovery can be expected. EY-DKM projections based on initial assessments (in May) across housing, non-residential buildings, offices, industrial use and public sector construction show that the volume of construction output by 2022 is forecast at just below 80% of the corresponding volume in 2019. The overall volume of construction output is forecast to decline by 37.7% this year, followed by a rebound of 17.6% in 2021 and 7.6% in 2022.

The latest assessment from Euroconstruct has the Irish and UK construction sectors as the poorest performers across 19 countries. The value of construction is estimated to have reached €27.7 billion (8% of GDP) in Ireland in 2019, but the crisis is expected to result in a contraction in construction output by almost 34% in 2020 (5.9% of GDP). In the UK, construction volumes are expected to contract by over one-third. Both Ireland and the UK have the strongest recovery prospects in construction output in 2021 at 17.6% and 22.8% respectively.

Meanwhile, the closure of sites is expected to reduce levels of new house building substantially. Notwithstanding supply challenges that existed pre-COVID-19, housebuilding is expected to fall to 14,000 units in 2020, down from 21,138 in 2019 and well below the requirement of 35,000 units per annum.

The hope is that the industry recovers more strongly than expected, but there are downside risks, notably uncertainty regarding the virus and fear of a second wave. As such, housing supply constraints could be more significant than they were pre-COVID-19, resulting in an even greater challenge for affordability, the private rented sector, and homelessness.
Ireland has the potential to lead the way in a European rebound and there is a substantial commitment of resources for public infrastructure projects by Government in the National Development Plan 2018-2027 and Project Ireland 2040.

The new partnership of Government also promised to make “transformative changes” with various actions set out to drive economic recovery and place Ireland as an exemplar in decarbonising our economy. At the time of writing, the immediate actions awaited are the July Stimulus and the distribution of the EU Recovery Fund for Ireland. For construction, it will be essential that funding focuses on capital and labour-intensive projects as well as other essential pre-committed infrastructure projects. 

As an open economy, Ireland’s recovery is dependent on developments in our major trading partners, notably in the UK. Investing in infrastructure must be ramped up straight away and will deliver substantial economic benefits, as the multiplier spending impacts reverberate through the rest of the economy. But while the Government can transform our country economically, the responsibility for suppressing the virus ultimately rests with the whole of society.

Annette Hughes is Director, EY-DKM Economic Advisory.