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Building firms buoyant, but shortages threaten growth

By Margaret Canning

Confidence among Northern Ireland's building firms is at its highest for more than two years, according to a survey published today. But skills shortages - particularly a lack of quantity surveyors - threaten to hold back further growth, according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).

The province was one of few parts of the UK to experience a lift in output during the last quarter of 2016, RICS said.

Most respondents to the survey, which is carried out in association with law firm Tughans, also said they expected their workloads to increase during 2017.

House building in Northern Ireland has been fuelling the growth, the research found. Commercial property work was also rising, but infrastructure work was weak, and well below the UK average.

And firms were also making the journey to Britain for work.

RICS' insights come after a report by Deloitte found that building activity in Belfast is close to a 10-year high.

Jim Sammon, RICS construction spokesman for Northern Ireland, said: "The picture painted by the quarter four survey is one of growth, and expectations looking 12 months ahead have improved considerably, probably driven by rising activity in Belfast, where a significant number of hotel, office, and student accommodation projects have come on site.

"Local companies are also continuing to do a significant amount of work in Great Britain, and increasingly Dublin, where the market is buoyant and appears sustainably so. However, challenges for local firms remain in terms of skills and price inflation, and a number of respondents are also citing delays in planning as holding back investment.

"We also need to see more broad-based activity beyond Belfast into other parts of Northern Ireland.

Michael McCord, construction partner at Tughans, said the findings of the survey were largely positive but that conditions did hold some challenges.

"Clearly some uncertainty lies ahead, and rising input costs may impact on profitability, but a weak sterling also has the potential to help increase the competitiveness of Northern Ireland companies working in the eurozone."

Last week the Construction Employers Federation (CEF) warned that the industry was facing problems including low margins, insufficient pipelines of work, skills shortages and the apprenticeship levy.

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