Coronavirus: Business 'bouncing back' for UK plumbers, electricians and builders

Replacing a damaged floor board. (Photo by DIY Photolibrary/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)
Replacing a damaged floor board. Photo: DIY Photolibrary/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

Business is “bouncing back” for Britain’s builders, plumbers, electricians and maintenance firms as lockdown restrictions have eased, new figures suggest.

Trades firms are benefiting from a backlog of delayed construction projects and non-essential work in people’s homes, as well as the renewed availability of materials as supply chains reopen.

Data from almost 600 small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) shows sales hitting £6.3m ($8.11m) in June, up 7% on a year earlier.

The figures, shared exclusively with Yahoo Finance UK, are from mobile-based billing, invoicing and quotation application Powered Now, which specialises in trades. They point to a stark turnaround in the fortunes of tradespeople since the pandemic rippled through the sector earlier this year.

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Many had taken a heavy hit as Britain went into lockdown in late March. Strong sales growth among Powered Now clients in February and March went into reverse, with revenue plummeting more than 45% in April and 27% in May.

Benjamin Dyer, its CEO, said much of the supply chain “completely collapsed” as lockdown hit, making materials hard to get and forcing work to stop. “When we think of panic buying to be loo rolls and pasta, in the construction sector it became impossible to buy bags of plaster, cement or nearly all landscaping products,” he said.

More construction work continued throughout lockdown than some other sectors. But many trades firms halted work for the safety of workers, homeowners and landlords booked fewer maintenance jobs and the government warned against non-essential jobs for self-isolating or shielding households.

READ MORE: Strong ‘rebound’ in construction but firms slash jobs

Meanwhile many in the trade “fell between the gaps” with government crisis support like the furlough scheme, with business owners paid mainly via dividends rather than salaries eligible for far less help. “While there will be little sympathy for those who set their businesses up to avoid tax, the reality is there are thousands of families that have little or no income for months,” added Dyer.

But many firms now appear to be growing again as construction sites, suppliers, and the wider economy have increasingly reopened in recent months. Dyer said the slowdown had created a huge backlog of projects, from completing stalled works and starting ones agreed pre-pandemic to new demand.

The findings chime with data from a bellwether survey for the construction sector released earlier this month. Purchasing managers’ index (PMI) data for June showed the biggest expansion of activity in more than two years. One analyst called builders “the stars of the UK economy in June.”

The government’s stamp duty holiday in England and Northern Ireland may also fuel demand. Dyer added: “With the stamp duty holiday coming to an end in March we are predicting a huge homeowner panic to get houses up to scratch for sale.”

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Some of the recovery may reflect one-off, pent-up demand from months of lockdown, while many firms are still struggling with both limited capacity and demand because of COVID-19.

But Dyer said he had seen no signs of the bounce-back slowing down among clients and expected it to continue into next year – despite the economic crisis and widespread expectations cuts to furlough support will push up unemployment.

Dyer said even fears of a coronavirus second wave were “helping to drive the market,” making customers more keen to get on with projects swiftly. But he said it remained a significant threat to recovery.

Official figures show a higher-than-average death toll from the pandemic for construction workers already, suggesting another spike could threaten not just their livelihoods but their lives more than most.

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