Just when one is getting used to the sound of evening bird song breaking the silence of COVID-19 lock down it is to be replaced by a symphony of percussion piling, jack hammers and shouts of, "alright mate. When I nod, hit it". Indeed, we could now be moving to a world of 24 hour working on construction sites. Well that , it seems, is what Robert Jenrick MP (Secretary of State for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government) hopes to make possible by way of his latest Written Ministerial Statement.

In summary, Mr Jenrick wants local authorities (in England) to "take a swift and positive approach to requests from developers and site operators for greater flexibility around construction site working hours" and to avoid "planning conditions [being] a barrier to allowing developers the flexibility necessary to facilitate the safe operation of construction sites during the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to proceed at pace with work otherwise delayed as a result of COVID-19"

The achieve this aim, Mr Jenrick wants local authorities to permit or, at the very least, be sympathetic towards applications to change working hours, including:

  1. Sites to work until 9pm from Monday to Saturday unless there are "very compelling reasons" not to do so; and
  2. In areas without residential properties, for sites to be open and working on a 24 hours basis.

As to what "very compelling reasons" are, the statement refers to "significant impact" on neighbouring businesses or uses that are sensitive to "noise, dust or vibration, and which cannot be overcome through other mitigation". It also points to this not applying "where impacts on densely populated areas would be unreasonable" which suggests it would not apply in major cities and towns, or villages.

Thankfully, Mr Jenrick will allow construction workers and the local inhabitants to enjoy some peace and rest on a Sunday and Bank Holidays. In any event, these changes are to be "temporary" and not extend beyond 13 May 2021.

Will this work? I am not convinced we will witness dozens of sites working 24 hours from Monday to Saturday (inclusive), but at least this gives the industry the option of working longer hours and, thereby, either catching-up on lost progress, or keeping to the new programme despite a lower level of productivity created by social distancing.

This Written Ministerial Statement does not say what 'activities' can be carried out on site from late afternoon until 9pm or beyond. Therefore, one can foresee local authorities permitting longer working hours but seeking to limit the nature of the activities that can be done. If this happens, developers may be discouraged from seeking to change the existing conditions in the first place and, of course, what about those living nearby? Are we going to witness a flood of objections from 'angry' electors (with time on their hands) putting pressure on their local councillors to 'find' that some "very compelling reasons" do exist?

The aim behind this initiative is sound and every initiative to increase the level of economic activity in the Construction sector and UK plc should be welcomed. I may be proved wrong and the 'new normal' (until possibly 13 May 2021) might be 9pm site working in residential areas and 24 hour working elsewhere but  I am not convinced. In any event, every initiative like this must be viewed in the context (to use the new Boris slogan) of 'Staying Alert, Controlling the Virus and Saving Lives'. This is especially so given the need to make sure your workplace (be that a construction site or not) is 'COVID secure'.

As for Mr Jenrick MP, I do hope he has managed to work out where his main residence is because a few weeks ago he was spotted in Herefordshire, then Shropshire and finally central London, or was it the other way round? I was not convinced he knew either. Anyway, one benefit of having more than one 'main' residence is that Mr Jenrick can choose to stay in the one where there is less noise from the local construction site working until 9pm.