We speak fine words of collaboration, but all attempts to set up a representative industry-wide voice are torn apart by factionalism and confrontation, says Nick Raynsford

Nick Raynsford

The British construction industry is notoriously fragmented. Every significant report on the industry from Michael Latham’s Constructing the Team to Andrew Wolstenholme’s Never Waste a Good Crisis and Paul Morell’s IGT Report on Low Carbon Construction has identified this as a key problem which has to be addressed if we are to achieve a more efficient and more successful industry.

But for all the fine words, and the impressive demonstration projects - both those that were explicitly set up as part of M41 (the movement for innovation) in response to the Egan Report and others such as the 2012 Olympics - which have shown how a better integrated, less confrontational approach can deliver huge benefits, the goal has proved frustratingly elusive.

The Strategic Forum has had to pass around the begging bowl to fund work. For one of the country’s biggest industries accounting for 9% of GDP, this is frankly shameful

Not only has it been difficult to break down traditional barriers and the confrontational spirit which has proved so damaging in many contractual relationships, it has proved equally hard to get the representative bodies of the industry’s many component parts to work together consistently in a collaborative spirit.

There is a long history here, going back not just decades, but generations. But let’s just remind ourselves of what has happened in the past 20 years.

One of the key recommendations of the Latham Report was a review implementation forum to bring together representatives from across the whole industry to oversee the implementation of the Constructing the Team recommendations. This evolved into the Construction Industry Board (CIB) which did a great deal of important work in fleshing out the different elements in the Latham agenda, which needed to be adopted across the industry. But as has often proved the case with construction industry reform initiatives, the CIB began to lose momentum after a few years. It also appeared to be increasingly tangled up in minutiae, suggesting that its focus was shifting increasingly to the detail rather than the big picture.

At the same time the Egan Report Rethinking Construction had given new impetus to the construction industry reform agenda and as the responsible minister at the time, it seemed to me appropriate to replace the CIB with the Strategic Forum for Construction under Sir John Egan’s chairmanship. This would help to re-energise the voice of the industry and give it, as the name made clear, a more strategic focus. It was also tasked with overseeing the implementation of the Rethinking Construction agenda, and monitoring progress in meeting the targets defined in the follow-up report Accelerating Change.

However important each of the factions may think they are, no group can speak alone as the authoritative voice of the industry

Once again the new body made some important early gains, not least in setting a series of ambitious targets for the Olympic Delivery Authority. These “2012 commitments” undoubtedly helped to focus the whole industry on ensuring that the Olympics became a real showcase for the best of British construction.

But despite this and other important achievements, the Strategic Forum for Construction has found it difficult to maintain momentum, and perhaps more importantly, retain the support of all sectors in the industry. The siren voices of particular groups, that either want to hijack the Strategic Forum for their own sectional interests, or else emasculate it and claim to speak for the industry in its place, are once again too much in evidence. The problem is compounded by the lack of resources to enable the Strategic Forum to sustain its important work programme. It has depended on individual industry bodies to service its work; some have been more forthcoming than others. It has also had to pass around the begging bowl to fund the (genuinely) modest costs of publishing and disseminating really significant pieces of work. For one of the country’s biggest industries accounting for 9% of GDP, this is frankly shameful. It certainly helps to explain why over so many years construction has failed to achieve the recognition and respect that an industry of this size and significance deserves.

Is it too much to expect industry leaders to recognise that a reversion to factionalism is the last thing that British construction needs? The hard truth is that this great industry is made up of a range of very different groupings all of which have a contribution to make. None of them, however important each of the factions may think they are, can speak alone as the authoritative voice of the industry. Whatever the future of the Strategic Forum, it is essential that there is an authentic industry-wide representative voice with the capacity to promote the interests of the whole, not just some of the parts.

Nick Raynsford MP is honorary vice-chairman of the Construction Industry Council and a former construction minister