CIC Blog

| Filed in Blog, Construction Industry Council (CIC)
Construction’s slipper still doesn’t fit

Graham Watts

Chief Executive

Construction Industry Council

A 36-year perspective on construction has been one series of very long loops.   On the one hand, there has been the continual drive – from the top – to improve the industry’s efficiency with strategic reports coming along at an ever-increasing frequency.  Introducing ‘Constructing The Team’ - in 1994 - the author, Sir Michael Latham, remarked that it had been 15 years since the Banwell Report and he hoped that there would not need to be another seminal report about construction in the next 15 years.   

"The “Cinderella” industry has at long last found a Prince Charming in Government (and he can dance, too) now that we have a Secretary of State for Business (Vince Cable) who recognises that no other sector can function without an effective construction industry."

But by 2010, there had been four more major overhaul reviews (2 x Egan, Wolstenholme and Morrell)!    

The current iteration of all this motherhood and apple pie (for every report has articulated the blindingly obvious about how to make a better industry) is the Industrial Strategy, which merits some higher level of consideration since it, at least, places construction amongst and alongside the other major industrial sectors of the UK economy.  

The “Cinderella” industry has at long last found a Prince Charming in Government (and he can dance, too) now that we have a Secretary of State for Business ( Vince Cable) who recognises that no other sector of the British economy can function without an effective construction industry.

But, to carry this “Into the Woods” analogy one step further, the slipper still doesn’t fit.   Despite all the reports, we remain an industry that doesn’t train its own people in sufficient numbers, has an appalling record on diversity, requires a convoluted supply chain to construct a large shed and doesn’t pass on the payments fairly down to the people who actually turn up to do the work. 

The other series of loops I’ve witnessed over the past 36 years has been the eternal cycle of boom and bust.   We go from throwing good people onto the scrapheap to bemoaning skills shortages, sometimes seemingly without pausing for breath.   The short-termism of the industry never ceases to amaze me.  Companies’ breeze through the good times without – it appears – bothering much to prepare for the fact that they will not last forever.   When the recession comes, we mostly seem to be ill-prepared.    

"Frankly, it’s a cop-out.  No other economic sector has certainty of demand."

Now, we are obsessed with creating pipelines of work.   It seems like a great idea.  Spreading the workload evenly - like marmite on a piece of toast - will ensure a regularity of provision and guard against the inevitable inflationary pressure of too much, too soon.   A National Infrastructure Pipeline is a good thing but as a necessity for the client – and here the collective client is the UK taxpayer  –  rather than industry.  

The problem now comes with the industry believing that the pipeline is there for its own sake to provide a steady and unencumbered forward flow of work.   I hear this refrain frequently from industry trade associations who would like to see the “pipeline” concept extended to every area of demand, even into the private sector.   “Give us certainty of work, going forward, and we can invest in the people we need”, is the sort of plea I hear.   

Frankly, it’s a cop-out.  No other economic sector has certainty of demand. The biggest single thought, garnered from these 36 years’ experience, is the certainty that this industry needs an entirely new business model. And time is running out. 

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