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Steel ready to lead towards sustainable future

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Construction, like much of industry, is still on the back foot after a year when the only surprise is that COVID-19 and Brexit didn’t do as much economic damage as many feared. Government investment on a scale unprecedented in peacetime acted as a strong bulwark against strong tides that at times looked capable of sweeping away everything that we regard as ‘normal’ life.

But the outlook has lifted considerably in even the few short weeks since the last issue of NSC, with great progress being made in the UK’s vaccination programme and a government roadmap announced to chart a way ahead out of lockdown. ‘Freedom Day’, when all parts of the economy will be reopened, could be as early as 21 June.

Ending the furlough scheme, even though it could be extended to the summer in the 3 March Budget, is expected to cause unemployment numbers to rise, but hopefully that will be a temporary phenomenon and predicted economic expansion will create new job opportunities. Business groups across the economy have pressed the Chancellor to maintain his economic support, investor confidence seems to be returning, and an economic boom is confidently predicted as we come out of lockdown.

Constructional steelwork is soundly placed to meet the anticipated upturn from government spending, which as we pointed out in last month’s NSC, will create demand in the education and healthcare sectors, where steel has a long and successful track record. Other traditional areas of steel strength like logistics facilities have performed well in recent years and will continue to do so as online shopping strengthens its grip.

Against this promising background, attention will inevitably increasingly turn to sustainability, as the world aims to build back ‘cleaner’ and better. The drive towards zero carbon will only pick-up pace and the steel sector is already well placed to demonstrate a strong sustainability case, especially as the message about whole life carbon continues to spread – the BCSA’s Steel Construction: Carbon Credentials publication set out steel construction’s case last year.

The ‘circular economy’ is the real world that the whole construction industry and its clients have to operate in and, thanks to its recycling and reusability properties, steel has a stronger case than rival materials. Steel’s reusability and adaptability will come into its own as the world adapts much of its office and shopping and other buildings to new, post-COVID-19 uses. Clients of new buildings are unlikely to fail to notice that steel-framed buildings more easily extended their working lives thanks to being so easily adaptable. Surveys from consultancies like Kearney are revealing that circular economy principles are allowing companies to outperform rivals in costs savings and revenues, and materials more suited to yesterday’s take-make-waste economy will inevitably lose ground.

As BCSA President Mark Denham reveals in his President’s Column in this issue of NSC, the steel construction sector is not resting on its laurels, and a lively programme of sustainability-related projects are underway. For example, a pan-steel sector group has been formed to make sure all of the sustainability support tools are updated and refreshed as required, and new initiatives launched including a Roadmap to net-zero carbon and new carbon footprint tools. When the new ‘normality’ arrives, which will surely be a sustainability-driven normality, the steel construction sector is determined to take a lead.

Nick Barrett

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