'We are key to getting the economy back on its feet'
A major construction conference has heard concerns about the potential "decimation" of the industry in Northern Ireland.
The event at Malone House in Belfast organised by the Chartered Institute of Building was entitled 'Our Industry, Our Future'.
Chaired by John Armstrong of the Construction Employers Federation, the panel included Barry Neilson, chief executive of CITB - ConstructionSkills NI, who claimed that too much red tape was hindering development.
"If something goes wrong, a whole set of rules is written, which allows people who make mistakes to blame those who wrote the rules," he said.
"It seems worse than in any other area of the UK or the Republic. There are too many rules, there is a rule for everything."
Ian Long, Northern Ireland chairman of the Institution of Civil Engineers said that another big problem for firms is pre-qualification questionnaires (PQQs), which aims to avoid individual tendering by pre-selecting firms for projects.
"The whole PQQ issue is strangling the industry," he said.
"In one case, 17 people applied to undertake a project, each spent £20,000 on their PQQ, to get on a list of six, then spend another £10,000, £20,000, £30,000 each to try to be the one team to work on the project.
"Firms are saying that the effort they are putting into PQQs is actually not worth it, even if they did win the project."
Michael Thompson, managing director at building firm T-amp;A Kernoghan told the panel that while construction costs and the cost of social housing units have gone up "colossally", the cost of labour for bricklayers, joiners and other workers has gone down.
Eddie O'Neill, Managing Director at Gilbert Ash, said that action was needed imminently.
"We are hearing people getting upset about public sector cuts but over 26,000 people have lost their jobs in this industry over the last three or four years.
"Our industry is key to getting the economy back on its feet. The construction industry is in crisis and we need spending now.
"We are losing the skills base and this industry is going to be decimated. If politicians procrastinate too much longer an opportunity will be lost."
SDLP man Patsy McGlone MLA (left), chair of the All Party Group on Construction at Stormont, was keynote speaker and said that embracing the Green New Deal - a proposal that would result in the retro-fitting of thousands of houses with energy-saving measures - is key to the revitalisation of the industry.
However he acknowledged complaints from the audience that many homes were being "over-specified" on energy-saving and noted that large energy companies "are not getting it tight" in the same way as householders are.