ISG, Kier, Laing O’Rourke and Wates have joined forces to build four new English prisons, pooling their resources and skills to form one big collaborative team. Here’s how it works

HMP Millsike

An aerial view of what HMP Millsike, the first of the programme’s four prisons, will look like when built. Construction at the site in Full Sutton, East Yorkshire, is being led by Kier

“I’ve never worked so hard in my life on a job I was never going to build,” Laing O’Rourke veteran Mark Platt says. As someone who has been employed by the firm for nearly three decades, he still seems a bit baffled that his latest job involved securing work for Kier.

But that is exactly what Laing, Wates and ISG did on the government’s £1bn prisons programme – and the approach is being hailed as the future of big construction projects.

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The scheme to build four new prisons for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to accommodate adult males is one of the first major capital projects outside of infrastructure to use an alliance model, where multiple main contractors collaborate on a single job. It has thrown four of the UK’s biggest builders into an office, “debadged” them, as they describe it, and effectively made them operate as one team. 

Why? Because the amount of work that needs to be done is more than any single UK contractor could do within a reasonable time. By pooling staff, expertise and supply chain partners, the four teams have got the first prison, HMP Millsike in Yorkshire, to site in less than 16 months.

It is being built by Kier and forms the “reference design” on which the other three prisons will be based. With its cross-shaped blocks, it bears a close resemblance to HMP Five Wells, a prison also built by Kier which opened in Northamptonshire in 2022 and which in terms of design is a forerunner of the four alliance prisons.

The other three prisons are currently going through planning with a decision due by next month. All four will essentially be identical from the ground up, with each site using the same standardised materials and the same basic design approach.

Each contractor will be assigned a prison to build, but all four are working together on the pricing, operations, planning and materials procurement for the programme as a whole. In practice that means alliance partners have been pricing jobs for what in normal circumstances would be their rivals, a situation that Platt, Laing’s alliance lead for the programme, admits has been “strange”.

“I surprise myself when I think back at what we did,” he says. It goes the other way, too. “If you put yourself in Kier’s shoes, they had three other organisations helping them price the job. You’d be like, do we trust their number?” 

It will be strange to go back into competition with each other – that’s one of the things we keep saying to each other

Eddie Tribe, project director, Wates

Without mutual trust between the alliance partners, the model would not have worked. It has also required a genuine spirit of collaboration, not traditionally the hallmark of the construction industry. But by all accounts the programme’s first phase – the development of the reference design for HMP Millsike – was a resounding success which saw the creation of a cohesive team.

“It’s been absolutely fascinating,” says Wates project director Eddie Tribe. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.

“It will be strange to go back into competition with each other – that’s one of the things we keep saying to each other. Because you’ll have a team and you suddenly realise that everyone that you’re working with isn’t actually Wates. But we’re just used to it now.”

“It genuinely has been a good ride for two years,” adds Platt. “Everyone was approaching it with trepidation, wondering ‘what’s all this about’. Four builders together, normally everyone at arm’s length, and everyone came into it with the right attitude and no ego.”

Mark Platt Laing

Laing O’Rourke’s Mark Platt

Despite what everybody says about the adversarial culture of big contractors, getting people working together was easy, says ISG major projects director Craig Battye. “It happened naturally,” he says.

“Everybody was working very openly and honestly, so the barriers between companies were going down. I was telling some of Wates’ staff what to do, some of Keir’s staff were telling my staff what to do. Nobody got funny about it because you’re all working to the same set of objectives.” 

I’ve learnt a lot from my colleagues from Laing, and they’ve learnt a lot from us about how we manage design around big digital construction

Craig Battye, major projects director, ISG

The partners even coined the strapline “power of four” to describe the benefits of combining the skills of the UK’s biggest building firms. And it appears to have benefited not just the programme, but the contractors themselves.

“I’ve learnt a lot from my colleagues, from Laing, and they’ve learnt a lot from us about how we manage design around big digital construction,” says Battye.

So how did the model work in practice? The four contractors were appointed in summer 2021 on a framework alliance contract (FAC-1), a relatively new type of contract first published in 2016. It sets up long-term partnering on a programme of works with financial incentives linking the rewards of each of the alliance members to agreed overall outcomes. 

This is intended to motivate trust between team members originating from different contractors, while the prospect of further jobs awarded through the work programme encourages sustaining the collaborative relationship. 

“That was a real behavioural thing, working to secure a job for another organisation but knowing that yours would follow. And that’s where the whole trust thing comes in,” says Platt. 

The contract means that parties are less likely to let each other down or abuse their relationship as the incentive for the short-term gains of opportunistic behaviour is outweighed by the risk of long-term reputational damage.

There are mechanisms in place to prevent bad behaviour, but Platt says these were never needed on the prisons programme. “There was nothing to gain,” he says. “It was genuinely a common goal.” 

>> Also read: How to escape the groundhog day of dodgy frameworks

Initial meetings were held in spring 2021 in a hotel conference room in Leeds with representatives from each of the four contractors, the Ministry of Justice and programme manager Mace. Also in attendance was design team Perfect Circle, a firm jointly owned by Pick Everard, Gleeds and Aecom that operates through the Scape framework, which had already worked up the HMP Millsike reference design to RIBA stage 3.

We said we want this to work, we want to be trusting each other, we want integrity

Mark Platt, Laing O’Rourke

Around seven meetings took place during the tail-end of the covid pandemic restrictions, with flip charts, post-it notes, pen and paper and a copy of the government’s Construction Playbook on the table. Mace asked the contractors to outline their tenders and provide a mission statement on what they wanted out of the job.

“We said we want this to work, we want to be trusting each other, we want integrity,” says Platt. “It was tremendous. It was a very creative, collaborative environment.”

Perfect Circle’s reference design was essentially a “kit of parts” which was handed to the contractors, who then appointed their own architects to apply it to the four sites. Although the prisons will all look almost identical, the below-ground components needed different treatments, with some requiring piling or extra drainage. 

The four alliance partners then went away and assembled teams from their combined pool of staff based on who had the most relevant experience. This meant that a much wider choice of the best skills were available.

“One company might have 800 staff, and then all of a sudden you’re up at 5,000 staff you can draw down from. Your supply chain that might have been a 1,000 all of a sudden became 4,000, so it was just that efficiency of opening everything up,” says Platt.

The chosen people had their “identity almost scrubbed off” as they became part of the alliance, Battye says. “As soon as you walk into that project team, you debadge, you debrand at the door and we’re all one big team.” 

The partners met weekly with Perfect Circle and the MoJ to sign off on decisions and make compromises on different approaches used by the contractors, including things like the use of PPE. This is where a lot of the efficiency of the programme was achieved. Each decision applied to all four projects instead of being made separately by multiple project teams, as would have happened with a traditional approach. 

This also applied to the procurement of materials, which were standardised across the four schemes, meaning that teams could bid for four lots of materials instead of one. “The efficiencies of being able to do that – and the ability to give the supply chain visibility of work and resources – is just immeasurable,” says ISG’s Nick Hann. 

Laing O’Rourke led on procuring precast concrete given the experience it has in this field from its Explore facility, an offsite construction factory in Worksop, where it hosted a core group meeting there with the Ministry of Justice. 

HMP Five Wells drone (1)

Kier’s HMP Five Wells, opened last year, is a forerunner of the four alliance prisons

If precast panels had been procured separately by four project teams, the UK precast market would have been swamped, Battye says. “By combining the resource, you’re not just buying one prison, you’re buying lots of components that make up a prison.

“You can look at a wider piece of work, look at the production rate from first panel to the very last panel, and look at the trends in manufacturing to fill the gaps in low production with production of the same panels. So you might not need a panel for two years but, while capacity is capable, build the panel stockpile and it could go to any of the prisons.”

The programme team was given essential guidance on the amount of materials needed by cost management firm Soben, which was appointed to benchmark the projects against existing prisons. The firm looked at the projects as they went through RIBA stages to identify gaps in the design, which were then fed back to the design teams to be filled in. The updated designs were then compared to a huge bank of data Soben had built up from previous projects it had worked on. 

“If you get the quantification right, you can understand what the quantity of steel might be per square metre, or quantity of internal walls, external walls, roof area,” says Soben EMEA managing director Andrew Gallacher.

The fact that we had a common set of data that Soben had provided gave people confidence that the quantities that we were pricing were right 

Mark Platt, Laing O’Rourke

“It helps them make decisions about whether the designs are efficient, making sure they make the best use of the space they have, and considering other options for that. It’s about looking at what would happen if you change the ratios. What would that do to the cost?”

The tool played an important role in getting the four contractors to align behind a price, normally a hard enough job within one firm. “The fact that we had a common set of data that Soben had provided gave people confidence that the quantities that we were pricing were right,” Platt says. “That’s one of the things that was really important to us – confidence.”

With the nature of the construction industry as it is, it might have been more straightforward for the MoJ to just appoint separate contractors for each prison. “In some ways it was brave of them,” says Tribe.

“But look what they’ve managed to harness from the market – four different tier one contractors working together. It’s quite powerful, isn’t it?”

It was also what the industry has been asking for to free them from the constraints of isolated projects and teams.

All four partners said the MoJ deserved credit. “The Construction Playbook set the framework for how the government wanted to start to procure major infrastructure projects and the MoJ were bold enough to pick up that baton and run with it first,” says Tribe.

“They are the ones who have shown the most initiative and moved forward with it and, instead of words, are putting it into practice.”

Platt adds: “The MoJ said, You’ve been asking for this, the industry. Here’s the playbook, here’s your once-in-a-generation chance. Don’t blow it.’ 

“That was the brief we were given. And I don’t think we’ve blown it.”

Expert view

David Mosey

Professor David Mosey, author of Constructing the Gold Standard, a review of frameworks commissioned by the Cabinet Office as a follow-up to the Construction Playbook, said the prisons programme had tested the FAC-1 contract as an “effective multi-party integrator for major projects”.

“Its supply chain collaboration system and shared timetable describe how contractors working together can obtain better value from specialist innovations, and its core group enables a collaborative approach to agreeing new ideas and heading off potential disputes,” he said.

“FAC-1 also brings to life a more integrated approach to BIM through its direct mutual licences of intellectual property.”