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Construction output falls

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RISING costs and uncertainty relating to Brexit are to blame for the sharp drop in output growth in January 2019, the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) has said in response to the latest Purchasing Managers’ Index data (PMI).

The Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS) Construction Purchasing Manager’s Index incorporates survey results provided by construction firms throughout the country.

A reading above fifty suggests the construction sector is expanding, while a reading below fifty suggests the construction sector is in contraction.

The January 2019 PMI data revealed a fall from 52.8 in December to 50.6 in January, against the neutral reading of 50.0. January data pointed to a loss of momentum for the UK construction sector, with business activity growth grinding to its weakest for ten months.

All three categories of construction output recorded weaker trends than those reported in December.

Residential work was the strongest performing area, although the latest expansion was only modest and the slowest seen since March 2018. Civil engineering activity increased marginally, with the rate of growth much softer than December’s 19-month high.

Commercial work was the weakest performing area of construction output in January. Latest data indicated a decline in work on commercial construction projects for the first time in ten months. Anecdotal evidence suggested that Brexit-related anxiety and associated concerns about the domestic economic outlook continued to weigh on client demand.

New business growth eased to an eight-month low in January.

Construction firms widely commented on softer demand conditions and longer sales conversion times, reflecting a wait-and-see approach to spending by clients. Concerns about the near-term outlook for new projects resulted in more cautious staff hiring policies at the start of 2019. The latest survey pointed to the slowest rise in employment numbers since July 2016.

However, construction firms remain positive about the outlook for business activity in 2019. Around 41% of the survey panel anticipate a rise in output, while only 16% forecast a fall.

Optimism had, however, fallen month on month. Large-scale civil engineering projects were cited as a key source of optimism, while Brexit uncertainty was the most commonly cited concern.

Tim Moore, Economics Associate Director at IHS Markit, which compiles the survey: “UK construction growth shifted down a gear at the start of 2019, with weaker conditions signalled across all three main categories of activity.

“Commercial work declined for the first time in ten months as concerns about the domestic economic outlook continued to hold back activity.

“The latest survey also revealed a loss of momentum for house building and civil engineering, although these areas of the construction sector at least remained on a modest growth path.”

Duncan Brock, Group Director at the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply said: “The sector suffered a sharp drop in output growth in January, and the softest rise in purchasing volumes since September 2017, as Brexit continues to hamper progress and dampen client confidence.

“The biggest shock came in the form of job creation which has managed to suffer the slings and arrows of Brexit highs and lows with solid hiring since the referendum result. Employment rose at the slowest rate since July 2016 and with optimism also in short supply, the sector only needs a small nudge to tip it closer to a recession.”

Commenting on the results, Brian Berry Chief Executive of the FMB, said: “The latest PMI data show a slowdown in growth in construction with business activity growth easing to its weakest for ten months. The ongoing political uncertainty is partly to blame for this setback.

“Political uncertainty is the enemy of construction firms that rely on the spending power of homeowners to commission home improvement projects. The UK is set to leave the EU next month, and yet we are still none the wiser about what the future holds. Given these intense headwinds, it should not be surprising that the sector suffered such a sharp decline.”

Mr Berry continued: “Alongside the political uncertainty, the cost of doing business is also rising for construction firms up and down the country. Material prices have been rising steadily since the depreciation of sterling following the EU referendum.

“Looking ahead, material prices are expected to continue to cause a headache for the construction industry with recent research from the FMB showing that 87% of builders believe that material prices will rise in the next six months. What’s more the construction skills crisis means that key trades are extremely difficult to recruit and the upshot of this is rising wages in construction.

“Tradespeople know they can command higher salaries than they did previously as workers are scarce, and this means a squeeze in margins for firms. This will only worsen if the post-Brexit immigration system that the Government has planned goes ahead.

“If the sector isn’t able to draw upon crucial EU workers of all skill levels, who have so far served to mitigate this shortage, the slowdown of growth will continue.”

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Lidl to build brand-new store in Llanelli

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LIDL has confirmed it intends to build a brand-new store in Llanelli as part of its ongoing £1.3bn investment across Great Britain in 2021 and 2022. The announcement comes as Lidl is working with developer Arbenigol Limited who has exchanged contracts with Carmarthenshire County Council, securing the site on Trostre Retail Park.

As well as delivering Lidl’s high quality and affordable produce to even more of the community, the plans include a multi-million-pound investment and the creation of around 40 new jobs for the local economy. The new store would consist of a 1,410m² sales an in-store bakery, customer toilets, baby changing and 130 car parking spaces. 

Lidl GB’s Regional Head of Property, Paul Hebblethwaite, commented: “We are delighted to confirm plans to open our second store for Llanelli and serve even more of the local community our fresh, quality, great value products. We are firmly committed to continuing to develop the local area through investment and job creation. The team are very much looking forward to confirming a date for our public consultation when we will outline our plans and get input from those who will directly benefit from the new store.”

Its ongoing success shows no signs of slowing, with the latest Kantar Worldpanel results highlighting Lidl’s increase in sales year on year and market share of 5.7%.

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Thousands of steel jobs at risk as lender collapses

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GREENSILL CAPITAL has this filed for administration, potentially putting at risk thousands of jobs in the UK steel industry, including jobs in Wales.

On Monday (Mar 8), lawyers for the bank, which is one of the main sources of funding for steel magnate Sanjeev Gupta’s business empire, appeared before a UK court today, the FT reported.

Unions are seeking urgent talks with steel magnate Sanjeev Gupta over the future of his operations in the UK with its main financial backer having now filed for administration in the UK.

Mr Gupta, who lives in Monmouthshire, has over the last few years acquired a string of steel and aluminium interests globally with the backing of supply chain lender Greensill, which is understood to have provided him £3bn.

According to court documents, Greensill has “fallen into severe financial distress” and can no longer pay off its debts.

As a result, US investor Apollo Global Management could now sweep in and buy up some of the firm’s businesses.

Accountants Grant Thornton said that it had been appointed as Greensill’s administrator.

In a statement, it added that in was in “continued discussion with an interested party in relation to the purchase of certain Greensill Capital assets.”
“As these discussions remain ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”, it added.

The collapse marks a rapid downfall for the firm, which counted former PM David Cameron among its advisers.

The supply chain finance specialist was thrown into disarray last week when its insurance provider refused to renew a $4.6bn contract.

Shortly thereafter, lender Credit Suisse froze $10bn of funds linked to the firm, leaving it perilously short of cash.

With Gupta’s GFG Alliance believed to be heavily exposed to the firm, the collapse could have a devastating affect on the UK steel industry.

Up to 5,000 jobs at GFG and subsidiary Liberty Steel could be at risk, with union officials set for crisis talks with the firm tomorrow.

“Sanjeev Gupta needs to tell us exactly what the administration means for Liberty’s UK businesses and how he plans to protect jobs”, union Community said in a statement.

“The future of Liberty’s strategic steel assets must be secured and we are ready to work with all stakeholders to find a solution.”

It was also reported that business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng met with Liberty Steel’s chief executive John Ferriman yesterday.

Nicknamed the “saviour of steel”, Gupta had previously snapped up a number of steel assets in the UK despite uncertainty over the future of the industry.

Liberty Steel currently owns nine steelworks sites in the UK, which employ around 3,000 people. 2,000 more staff work for engineering firms connected to the industry.

Reacting to the announcement of possible steel job losses at Liberty Steel, Newport and other sites, the Shadow Minister for Economy, Business and Infrastructure, Russell George MS, said: “This announcement, of course, will undoubtedly cause anxiety for workers and their families.
“So, first and foremost, the most important aim now is for dialogue to ensue, in a bid for a solution to be found.
“Steelworkers in Wales have a brilliant reputation for creating high-quality products and I truly hope a solution can be reached.”

But a spokesperson for the company said that the firm was currently running as normal.
“Our operations are running as normal and our core businesses continue to benefit from strong market conditions generating robust sales and cash flows”, they said.
“Our operational efficiency programme has improved profitability and we are making progress in our discussions with financial institutions that can help diversify our funding. We are keeping our employees up to date and will provide further updates as we deliver our plans.”

Mike Hill, Labour MP fo Hartlepool, where one of Liberty’s steelworks is, said: “Liberty Steel is a major employer in Hartlepool, manufacturing bespoke Pipes for use by the offshore oil and gas industry.
“The company has also been identified as a key player in the Government’s plan for a Freeport in Teesside and Hartlepool. The last thing our local economy needs in these difficult times is for the business to go under and urgent intervention from Ministers will be needed if there are any signs of that happening.”

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Burry Port residents urged to pool ultrafast broadband vouchers

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OPENREACH is asking people living in Burry Port to get behind a push for faster broadband.

Ultrafast, ultra-reliable full fibre broadband is within touching distance for people living in Burry Port – thanks to Openreach’s Community Fibre Partnership scheme.

The company – the UK’s largest broadband network used by customers of BT, Plusnet, Sky, TalkTalk, Vodafone and Zen – is urging people living or working in Burry Port to consider pooling Gigabit broadband vouchers available from the UK and Welsh Governments to help build a new, gigabit-capable network, where fibre is run directly from the exchange all the way to each property.

Many residents have already pledged their support, but those who haven’t and don’t currently have access to a 100Mbps broadband service can check if they qualify and pledge their voucher on the Connect My Community website.

If enough people come forward to pledge, and validate their vouchers – before the scheme ends – Openreach can work with the community to build a customised, co-funded network and bring full fibre broadband to areas not included in any existing private or publicly subsidised upgrade schemes.

By working with Openreach in this way, more than 150,000 homes and businesses across the UK can already benefit from ultrafast, ultra-reliable broadband.

Connie Dixon, Openreach’s partnership director for Wales, said: “This is a really exciting opportunity for the community of Burry Port to bring full fibre infrastructure to the town but the clock is ticking.”

“Deadline for vouchers to be pledged and issued is the end of March so we need as many people as possible in Burry Port to get involved so that we get enough pledges ‘over the line’. Everyone who pledges a voucher will be doing their bit to help make Burry Port one of the best-connected places in Wales. Pledging couldn’t be simpler, but we need residents to act quickly.”

Connie added: “Thousands of homes and businesses across Wales can already upgrade to the Openreach full fibre network and local people can use our online postcode checker to see what’s now available.

“We’re investing £12 billion to build full fibre broadband to 20 million homes – and more than three million of those will be in the toughest third of the UK – but we can’t upgrade the whole country alone. This latest support from government, alongside help to remove red tape and barriers that slow down the build, is vital.”

To claim vouchers which contribute towards the cost of building the new network, residents are asked to commit to ordering a full fibre service from a provider of their choice for at least 12 months once the new network is available.

Eligible residents can qualify for up to a maximum of £3,000 while small to medium sized businesses can claim up to £7,000 under the UK Government’s Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme which has been topped up by Welsh Government funding.

Carmarthenshire County Council leader, Cllr Emlyn Dole said: “We welcome this scheme and would strongly recommend residents and businesses in Burry Port seeking ultra-fast, ultra-reliable internet speeds to register their interest now. Fast, reliable connectivity is vital to support business growth, help communities to thrive, improve health and well-being, and make it easier for people to get online and access public services. This has been particularly highlighted during the current Covid-19 pandemic.”

Full fibre technology provides more reliable, resilient and future-proof connectivity; meaning fewer faults; more predictable, consistent speeds and enough capacity to easily meet growing data demands. It’s also future-proof, which means it will serve generations to come and won’t need to be upgraded for decades.

Fibre optics – strands of glass around one-tenth the thickness of a human hair – transmit data using light signals. Fibre is smaller, lighter and more durable than copper cabling and less vulnerable to damage. This short video explains what full fibre technology is and there’s more info here.

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