Brickbats are sure to follow the Government decision to allow construction to continue for now while other businesses are shutting to help halt the spread of Covid-19. Critics are almost sure to highlight – once again – the perceived close relationship between developers and politicians as a factor in the decision.
They might be right in one way: it is a political decision, in the sense that politicians have made it. However, the Government may not have done so for the reasons they believe.
Halting everything but essential building projects boils down to choosing what is “essential” in the first place. Working that out is not easy. The word could apply to repairing flood-damaged structures in the midlands or to work on a water treatment plant.
It could embrace other things too. Long before the coronavirus crisis, we had a housing crisis, one that is likely to outlast Covid-19 by some distance. So, is housebuilding not essential? What about schools? Even roads? Try telling people in Galway that the bypass is not needed.
Our world is literally built around us. We live in homes that are built, work in offices, factories and other structures that are built, and travel between the two on roads that are built. Some of our food is even grown in buildings.
Along with that, few industries depend as heavily on politics as construction. Politicians make laws that govern planning, and implement them locally through councils. Governments decide on building roads, schools, hospitals, water treatment plants and so on.
If it comes to it, politicians will have to decide on what is essential construction. And there will be a reckoning for that. Long after voters have – hopefully – forgotten Covid-19, they will remember who halted work on that road, water treatment plant or housing development, particularly if such a delay ends up being longer than expected.
A decision to suspend most building may yet come, but for the most political of reasons – not needlessly upsetting voters – politicians may want to put it off for as long as possible.