Scrapping the chief construction adviser role and proposed reforms to the Construction Leadership Council are nothing short of disaster. The industry faces a struggle to get its voice heard
Last week the government announced that it was scrapping the position of the chief construction adviser, “reforming” the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) and scrapping its delivery group. Groan, here we go again. Instead of building on the achievements of the past, the new government starts again.
The post of construction adviser has been hugely successful. First, Paul Morrell, who focused the government and the industry on their respective responsibilities on carbon, and since then Peter Hansford, who developed the ambitious 2050 targets, got everyone to buy into them, and built a fairly convincing delivery mechanism. Perhaps as importantly, these two construction advisers, the former a spectacularly successful quantity surveyor (youngest ever partner in the UK’s biggest QS firm) and the latter a hugely and broadly experienced engineer (past president of ICE) did what it said on their tin: they advised. I know from my time at the RIBA and the Construction Industry Council that politicians rarely understand the construction industry. Why should they? And yet they are propelled by reshuffles (time and time again in quick succession) into a position of responsibility for it. Generally, they are quick learners and can master a brief, but there has to be someone there to learn from. The Civil Service is cut to the bone and is just not equipped to brief new ministers on how our industry works. The construction adviser could quietly, consistently and relentlessly brief new ministers (and their civil servants) on how our arcane industry works. Losing the construction adviser is a disaster and if the decision cannot be reversed we must find a new way of briefing politicians in post.
What’s going to happen to any proposals that come out of the new mini-Construction Leadership Council now there will be no delivery group to implement them?
Then there is the CLC and its delivery group. The CLC was not perfect. After I stood down as chair of the Construction Industry Council, succeeded by the excellent Tony Burton (a QS), there was no architect or frontline building designer on the council. But bar that, it was generally representative of the whole industry, if a bit biased to constructors. But the proposal to reform it with a smaller council of hand-picked individuals plus the chair of the Strategic Forum for Construction is truly a retrograde step. I fear what this might be like. At best a group of big beasts from the industry with self-interest at heart, at worst a bunch of cronies to support the Tory line rather than tell it how it is. What’s going to happen to the 2050 targets? And what’s going to happen to any proposals that come out of the new mini-CLC now there will be no delivery group to implement them? The Civil Service has no capacity to do anything. To add fuel to this fire, will the government do anything to pull together all the built environment responsibilities spread across the Department for Business, Industry & Skills and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and others? Is the new mini-CLC really going to stand comparison with the automotive council that had £1bn of government money pledged last year?
It’s worth remembering that it was a Conservative grandee, Michael Heseltine, who while heading the Department of Environment (DoE) in the 1980s said that whereas the government had a single point of responsibility for the built environment (the DoE), the construction industry was a shambles with scores of institutes and contradictory voices. We needed to get our act together. Well, progressively, we have, with the Construction Industry Council representing the professionals and other groups representing contractors, specialist contractors and manufacturers. These then form the strategic forum which is the “single voice” for the industry. Although it has had its ups and downs, the strategic forum has really pulled together recently, forming a key group along with the CLC and its delivery group to A: get things done and B: send the right messages from the industry up the chain. It’s a very effective group.
My involvement with the strategic forum has run its course since I stepped down from the Construction Industry Council in June, but if crisis is opportunity, I see this as a time when the strategic forum must seize the possibility of relating directly with the new mini-CLC and influence its thinking. A well picked CLC (fingers crossed) working closely with the strategic forum could make a lean team albeit without the benefit of a chief construction adviser. The government needs to listen to some wise heads right now, while they are still around.
While I was heading the RIBA, I remember one occasion moaning to journalist Paul Finch about some government group or quango that I thought was wrong headed. Paul turned to me and said, don’t worry, it will disappear sooner or later in a government rethink and the RIBA will go on forever. Too true. Where is the Goldilocks solution in the middle of these extremes?
Jack Pringle is principal, managing director EMEA at Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will