Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

Brick by brick: How Northern Ireland's building industry is slowing recovering

Bricklayers and plasterers on a Carryduff site tell Jack Brennan how they survived the downturn

Cementing the future: Aidan MacAlinden says being unemployed made him feel worthless. Pic David Fitzgerald

The construction industry in Northern Ireland has endured one of the most torrid times in its history. When the recession hit in 2008, thousands of builders and tradesmen of all kinds found themselves jobless.

Some tried to weather the storm, while others looked for pastures new in an attempt to make ends meet for them and their families.

The industry, like virtually all of Northern Ireland's economic sectors suffered badly. It seemed like the building trade was in a never ending free-fall as property prices plummeted.

It is estimated that more than 26,000 jobs were lost across the province since the 2008 downturn, approximately 30% of its workforce.

Across the Irish Sea things are now beginning to look a little brighter though, as jobs within the trade are on the rise again. London and the south-east of England have seen the highest rise in workloads last year, but experts say that Northern Ireland is still lagging behind the rest of the UK.

Still, there now seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel, too, for the building industry here.

Last October the construction sector officially exited recession after a rise in workloads was reported for the first time in over five years.

It would appear that the industry has finally hit rock bottom, and now has only one way to go – and that's up. One of the companies in Northern Ireland that has weathered the property storm, and continued to build new properties in recent times is Fraser Homes.

One site owned by the firm, which has more than 40 years experience in the building trade, is Lough Moss Mews in Carryduff.

The new cul-de-sac which will comprise of 10 detached homes is not far from completion, with residents already having moved into some of the properties.

On the site there are tradesmen who have been badly affected by the slump.

So, on a cold wintry morning I travelled to the site to speak with a few of the men working there to find out how they have coped with the downturn and what their expectations are for the future.

Jonny: I didn't want to give up – I thought it would get better

Jonny Tweedie, a plasterer from Ballynahinch, is married to Fiona with two children. In order to provide for his family he took up two jobs, one of which meant an 18-hour long day, travelling to and from his former job in Ballymoney. He says:

The downturn didn't really affect me until 2013. But the first seven months of last year, up until July, were tough.

I had to look around for other work and try different jobs. I renewed and installed water mains for a while, but the hours were a problem. The job was in Ballymoney and I didn't like the distance I had to travel.

My working day meant getting getting a lift at 5am and then not getting back home until after 11pm. The money was good because I was doing all these hours, but I was totally wrecked by the end of it.

After that, I did another job, fitting playgrounds and outdoor gyms. That lasted for two months.

It was hard on my wife, Fiona, as there were times when she was breadwinner. I didn't want to give up on my trade – I kept hoping that it would get better – but it didn't so I had simply had to take whatever work I could get so that we could make ends meet.

She was happy when I got work on the water mains job but then I packed that in. I felt really bad when I quit but I absolutely hated the job; eight hours of work a day is enough for anyone.

Since I've been working on this site my phone has been ringing a lot but it tends to be people looking small jobs carried out, such as needing wallpaper taken off or getting a wall touched up.

I reckon there'll be gaps in work in the building trade for some time yet – it's an industry that always will be at risk from that. But once people start buying houses again and getting mortgages it should turn a corner. In fact, though we're a bit behind England, I reckon things are definitely picking up here.

Some of my friends have moved to London to find work. They don't like being away from home but they had to go where the work was. I'd been offered work over there too, but then thankfully I found something here.

If it wasn't for this job, I would still be fitting playgrounds, and I'd much rather being doing this – what I've been taught to do. The playground job, like any job in winter, wasn't ideal. Plastering is a lot better.

Bernard: 'Luckily I was able to get work in a friend's bar'

Bricklayer Bernard Brannigan lives at home in south Down with his family. Just 25 years old, he was not working when the worst of the slump hit. But he still found himself having to work in a pub at weekends to make ends meet. When friends of his moved to Australia and Canada to find work, Bernard decided to stick out the recession here, and now thinks he is better off for doing so. He says:

I've been self-employed since I was 18. I worked for my family business, ESO Contracts, a small construction company in south Down. When things hit bad I was just finishing my three years in Tech, taking my level 1, 2 & 3, and becoming fully qualified.

Luckily a good friend of mine owned a bar and I was able to work weekends there with her.

That helped me through the winter months because in the bricklaying trade you're always going to have bad winters when you will need to try and find additional income to make ends meet.

During this time quite a few of my friends left to go to Australia and Canada.

They felt they had a better chance of finding work and a better life over there.

But I never wanted to go probably because I'm just too much of a home bird.

Ironically because I never earned the sort of big money that many people in the building trade did before the credit crunch came, I've been finding that things have just been slowly getting better for me as the past few years have gone by.

I think the money is just starting to pick up for my age group here.

And I actually feel sorry for my pals that emigrated because things are starting to dry up in Australia now. Yet the fact they've been away for two or three years and settled down there will make it very hard for them to return home now and get work.

Maybe staying put and weathering the storm wasn't such a bad idea after all. I'd like to think that people like me who'll be looking for mortgages in the next few years will find it easier – after all we've been earning steady money and banking with local banks.

My plan is to continue working with Fraser Homes for the time being and then hopefully one day in the future I'll go back to the family business and – who knows? – perhaps eventually become a director of that."

Aiden: 'Not being able to earn money made me feel worthless'

Firm foundation: Aidan MacAlinden at work at Loughmoss Construction Site (inset, far left and below) Pictures by david fitzgeraldThe recession hit bricklayer Aiden MacAlinden (37) and his family hard. The Hilltown man and his wife Elaine had to use their savings in order to provide for their three young children. Aiden says that getting out of bed in the morning and having nothing to do made him feel worthless. He says:

I had no work, I'd lost my job and I was a stay-at-home dad for a while. Yes, I managed to pick up bits and pieces of work here and there but I was still out of work for substantial periods of time – the longest was probably eight months.

Whatever savings we had we had to use them, with the result that now we have to essentially start saving from scratch again. If anything happens now and we needed money, it wouldn't be there.

During that period I did various other jobs. For example, I did some delivery work in the north here and up in Scotland for a couple of months. Those were runs I made a couple of times a week, one week on and then off for a while and then back on again. It was casual work.

Getting out of bed and not having anything to do is terrible. For me, it got to the point where I just felt as if I was worthless. I am the man of the house and I felt as if I should be trying to chip in and provide rather than having to rely on my wife, who has been the chief bread-winner for the last couple of years.

So now I'm thankful to have a job and glad to be back working.

The story of the whole construction industry has been tough, but I'm convinced that it has to get better soon. Let's face it, it can't really get any worse.

I couldn't say that any job in the industry is safe at the minute. But banks are beginning to loan money again and maybe that will kickstart things. Here's hoping.

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