Why do geospatial SMEs need support?

Poor procurement policies and economic uncertainty plus limited regulation, funding and education all create challenges for SMEs aiming to follow best practice when conducting geospatial surveys


  • Andy Beardsley AssocRICS

19 October 2023

High accuracy UAV photogrammetry for as-built project progress analysis. © Terra Measurement

In the UK, a pervasive lack of understanding about the significance of accurate geospatial surveys in construction and development projects has led to a number of challenges.

Accurate geospatial survey data is essential to ensure feasibility, design and construction are completed, accounting for 3D real world constraints. However, the procurement or completion of surveys is neglected and disregarded all too often, causing untold amounts of project overrun and expense.

At Terra Measurement, 10-15% of our turnover year on year relates to rectifying projects that had inaccurate or poor-quality survey information. Sometimes this resulted in hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of additional costs. These cases include land surveys, measured building surveys, underground utilities surveys and engineering surveys.

Despite the stark problems that poor survey data can cause, mistakes are still being made across the UK construction sector. These include a preference for cheapest-price tender policies during procurement, surveying equipment being used by non-experts with poor training, geospatial consultants' failure to collaborate with stakeholders, and compromising on survey quality to meet squeezed market expectations.

3D survey of St Mary Abchurch, London. © Terra Measurement

Accurate geospatial surveys are important because after initial concepts and feasibility studies, they are the essential starting point for the design and planning of any successful project that has a physical relationship to the real world. Everything relates to and is constrained by accurate 3D spatial information. Many companies still offer cheap geospatial surveys and substandard work. But the root of the problem is that many decision-makers on projects still do not understand the importance of accurate geospatial data.

This makes it difficult to compete on fees, as high-accuracy 3D surveys following best practice do not come at significantly lower costs.

The Horniman Museum, London. © Terra Measurement

Economic conditions intensify risks

The current economic climate in the UK has increased the appetite in procurement for low-cost surveys. Rising wages, insurance premiums, interest rates and day-to-day expenses all add to the pressure. This race to the bottom is perilous, heightening project risks and making the marketplace unsustainable.

On top of this, the construction sector faces a growing insolvency crisis, with many firms going out of business. These market challenges are not exclusive to geospatial surveyors: according to the government's Insolvency Service, 4,165 construction firms became insolvent in the 12 months to 31 March this year. This equates to 19% of all UK insolvencies, where the industry of an insolvent firm is known. For every one of those construction companies, more consultants and subcontractors could also have been affected, possibly leading to their insolvency in turn.

The economic downturn and squeeze on fees lead to indiscriminate business failures. This means companies have to adopt sustainable practices to navigate the slow economic recovery.

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Payment practices poor despite regulation

Government policies present further challenges, particularly in terms of late payments to SMEs.

While legislation has been introduced to promote transparency and improve payment practices, late payments are still common; as is pressure for cheap tenders. Although Grant Shapps announced an in-depth review of payment practices in December 2022 there is still room for improvement to protect smaller suppliers and SMEs. 

In 2017, the Reporting on Payment Practices and Performance Regulations 2017 was implemented giving a duty for businesses to report their payment practices and performance. But since 2017, the average time it takes a large business to pay an invoice has fallen by only one day, to 36 days, according to the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply.

In March, the Federation of Small Businesses published Time is money: The case for late payment reform. This report found that on average through 2022, over half of small businesses experienced late payment in the previous three months:

  • 52% of all SMEs in the UK experienced late payment – 34% of all SMEs affected were in the construction sector
  • 25% reported increased late payment
  • construction is among the most badly affected sectors
  • small businesses in the South East and East of England and in Northern Ireland were more likely to experience late payments.

The report highlights the impact of late and delayed payment on small businesses and the public's expectations about prompt payment:

  • 37% of small businesses applied for credit to manage their cash flow
  • 62% of the UK public think businesses are paid within a week
  • 55% of the UK public would support more controls.

In January, the government told business support providers to wind up hundreds of schemes – used by thousands of companies – that were still funded by the EU, despite concerns about delays to UK-funded replacements after Brexit.

At Terra Measurement, we had gained local business funding in 2021/22 through D2N2, the Local Enterprise Partnership for Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire. This enabled us to buy additional equipment, software and business infrastructure, which created additional jobs. However, this funding ultimately derived from the EU, and has thus now ended.

We recently investigated which grant schemes are available to us in the near future and found nothing significant or at pre-Brexit levels for the foreseeable future.

Building retrofit and reuse projects offer the most significant ways of reducing carbon emissions and stopping the unnecessary consumption of resources. Terra Measurement is proud to assist these types of projects with accurate 3D data, visualisation and smart structural health monitoring.

As noted in Architects' Journal Retrofirst campaign, one reason construction consumes so much is because it is based on a wasteful economic model. That often involves tearing down existing structures and buildings, disposing of the resulting material in a haphazard fashion, and rebuilding from scratch.

According to Statista, the construction, demolition and excavation segment is the largest source of waste generation in the UK, accounting for 62% of total waste generation in the UK in 2018. This amounted to some 138m tons of waste materials.

We lose more than 50,000 buildings through demolition every year and, while more than 90% of the resulting waste material is recovered, much of this is recycled into a less valuable product or material, rather than being reused.

, as part of the Wren 300 conservation project

High accuracy 3D survey at St Mary Abchurch, London, as part of the Wren 300 conservation project. © Terra Measurement

Cambusnethan Priory, Scotland, high accuracy 3D survey

Cambusnethan Priory, Scotland, high accuracy 3D survey. © Terra Measurement

Regulation and education support profession

The adoption of regulation of geospatial companies has been debated for a long time in the UK. Because regulation is ineffective and has not been implemented the importance and need for accurate surveys is not fully understood. The geospatial survey profession is not identified in the same way as civil engineers, structural engineers, quantity surveyors, for example. As a result some geospatial surveyors and users of geospatial equipment are completing poor-quality work.

The geospatial profession is, like many others, also suffering from a skills shortage. What is worse is that the academic pathways to a geospatial survey career are closing, most notably with Newcastle University ending its geospatial survey BEng.

To counter this problem, geospatial apprenticeship pathways and corresponding college courses are being developed. The Survey Association (TSA) also runs the excellent Survey School, which offers candidates a vocational course complementing their day job.

RICS, TSA and the Chartered Institution of Civil Engineering Surveyors play a pivotal role in promoting best practice in geospatial surveys. By providing training and influencing educational institutions and businesses, these representative organisations can foster a deeper understanding of geospatial survey data usage and distribution. This collaboration will lead to improved practices and collaboration, and ultimately, successful projects.

Andy Beardsley AssocRICS is managing director of Terra Measurement and a consultant geospatial surveyor

Contact Andy: Email | LinkedIn

Related competencies include: Engineering surveying, Surveying and mapping, Legal/regulatory compliance


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