Building Live showed what contrasting opinions people have on construction issues and proved how much they care about the industry they work in

Chloe mcculloch black

“Construction is incapable of reforming itself – only government intervention works.”

“It’s up to contractors and consultants to change the industry.”

“Nothing has changed since Carillion’s collapse and the Grenfell fire.”

“Everything is under review now we have the Hackitt report and government is clamping down on payment terms.”

“The housing crisis will get worse before it gets better.”

“Government intervention in the market can address the need for new homes.”

These conflicting views summarise just a few of the debates we had at last week’s Building and BD Live event, where we had expert panels discussing everything from the impact of major contractors’ low margins, to the role of duty holders as set out in Dame Judith Hackitt’s proposed building regs and fire safety reforms.

It was encouraging to see just how much the construction professionals at the event genuinely care about the industry’s state of health

Pointing out that the experts did not always agree is not a criticism; it is good to hear different opinions, healthy even. That way we can hope to bring to light fresh perspectives and new ideas to tackle what we all know are familiar problems of inadequate quality and quantity that have plagued the construction industry for decades.

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And it was encouraging to see just how much the construction professionals at the event genuinely care about the industry’s state of health. Take the session tasked with exploring if there is a future for the UK’s biggest contractors.

SEC Group’s Rudi Klein made an impassioned case for more regulation to clamp down on poor payment practices, for clients to pay subbies direct and for project bank accounts on all public sector contracts.

This plea will chime with many suppliers, in fear of the next Carillion and feeling powerless to limit the damage of insolvency higher up the chain. Klein went further and advised those who are worried about their immediate future to go direct to the client for assurances they will get paid in the event of a collapse. 

Meanwhile, Mace’s Mark Castle was open about how hard it is for major contractors to hit 2% margins if they only do contracting work, even in the good times. And while he recognised the call from the government for prompt payment – last week the Cabinet Office threatened to ban late-paying firms from public contracts – he challenged the government in turn to pay its own bills in a timely fashion.

Castle was absolutely clear on another point too: that contractor business models will have to change. He predicted that the companies that modernise and invest in innovation will break away to form a sort of premier league, leaving the rest behind to indulge in their race to the bottom. Be in no doubt, the savvy clients, as well as suppliers, are constantly looking for signs of which camp main contractors are falling into.

But what role does the client play in all this? In our keynote interview, the boss of procurement specialist Scape said public sector clients take a big share of the blame for a dysfunctional industry by pushing for lowest price.

Mark Robinson said the reason jobs on Scape’s framework tend to finish on time and on budget is because it gets the basics right: early supply chain engagement is his mantra. That and getting the project brief right in the first place.

He also has an interesting idea about mandating 5% margins for contractors on public sector jobs to cut out all the nonsense that happens when firms try to claw money back from a project where they underbid.

Robinson argues that if you guarantee a profit can be made, the focus can then be directed onto the project itself and the conversation can then turn to important issues such as quality of service or the social value a client will gain from the project. Now wouldn’t that be refreshing?

We have some of the news highlights from this interview and other sessions at the Building Live event, while there is also a round-up of a discussion of the impact of Grenfell in our news analysis spot this week and an overview of a live architectural contest for Canada Water organised by BD, our sister title, along with British Land and Allies and Morrison.

Of course, it is hard to capture everything that happened in a conference with three different content streams, but this year we are also producing audio podcasts with recorded highlights so you can listen in on some of the conversations we had.

One exchange that sticks in the mind is about millennials – the generation receiving a bad press for job-hopping and displaying a sense of entitlement in the workplace.

Alinea’s Iain Parker spoke to two of our graduate panellists, and it doesn’t give away too much to say that their insights put paid to the stereotypes. In fact, it became clear that the next generation is not so different to those who came before: younger people just want recognition for their ideas and their hard work, like the rest of us.

So, do tune in and, as ever, when it comes to your views, we are all ears. 

Chloe McCulloch is acting editor of Building