Once I was a sceptic about ‘collaboration’ but after four years as a ‘friendly critic’ of Network Rail’s Commercial Directors’ Forum I have realised that it’s all just common sense

Tony Bingham

Rather like being a Eurosceptic I have been, year-in and year-out, a collaboration sceptic. I would hum and haw about those words in the NEC contract “acting in a spirit of mutual trust and co-operation”: but not now. Mention partnering, teamwork, working together, it, they, all drew a wrinkled brow: but not now. And if there was now a referendum on it, I am a convinced non-sceptic. It is all down to this Dragons’ Den competition courtesy of Constructing Excellence. Damn it, we won because three of us sold “Network Rail Collaboration”. We, me too, were ever so convincing. Construction doesn’t work without collaboration and I have evidence to prove it; that’s why I could sell it. I was like a double glazing salesman who actually believed in his product.

I turned up on judging day. So did 78 teams of construction folk; 170 people in all. So did 24 industry judges, all constructors. Nearly all the big names were there. They were competing to blow trumpets about their collaboration efforts.

The five teams of judges were ever so strict on timetabling. I hadn’t done any of this before. I had heard of Constructing Excellence; snag is that my sceptic’s hat has seen their mission statement (Heaven save us from mission statements): “Constructing Excellence is a platform for industry improvement to deliver better value for clients, industry and users through collaborative working.” (I hum and haw …)

“We bring together informed intelligent clients with leading industry players, universities and other stakeholders to collaborate on integrity, openness and trust … Inclusivity … A whole industry approach … Respect for people including health, safety, welfare, equality and diversity.”

Lovely stuff. But, if you have been in our industry as long as I have, you have lived and breathed disputomania. All my early bosses wanted to screw the other bloke. And here am I selling collaboration in this Dragon’s Den … and winning. It wasn’t exactly a road to Damascus conversion (I am only a sceptic). It was a rail trip.

For upwards of four years I have been a guest (they call me the “friendly critic”) at something called the “Commercial Directors’ Forum” – hosted by Network Rail, and instigated by their commercial projects director Stephen Blakey. He twigged that their infrastructure projects needed to transform contractor relations: hence the forum. Every few months nearly 50 organisations of main contractors and specialist contractors meet and tackle construction themes. The simple aim is to co-operate on seeking improvement in performance. And I sit and listen.

If you have been in our industry as long as I have, you have lived and breathed disputomania. All my early bosses wanted to screw the other bloke

On the table, early on, was a real shift that made me and everyone else blink. Network Rail wasn’t the fastest enterprise in paying bills. Contractors waited for at least 56 days. Then, the forum agreed to endorse the Fair Payment Charter. I was sceptical about the aspirations, and the blurb, until the final paragraph: “Main contracts will have payment periods not exceeding 21 days from the Valuation Date … and Sub-Contractors will have payment 28 days from the same Valuation Date.”

And that’s the way it has been these four years.  The charter really is an all singing signed document. The chiefs of the contractors signed personally. I have it in front of me.

Then the forum started working on safety. It was called a step change in working practice. Soon it was jointly looking at performance of each part of the supplier contract folk. Along come another charter:“The Sustainability Charter dealing with a teamwork approach to waste, water, pollution, energy improvement, ethics, pay attention to local community welfare and more besides.”

The forum sees the soundness of fathoming workbank pipeline visibility. Groups are formed to figure out a common approach, tools, for change management control. Tools for defining allowable costs and fees, and (hooray) a guidance note to explain what this is. And let me say this; the notion of collaboration is, or has become, an automatic base line.

There is a rather special sub-group. It’s called the Triple T’s: Tomorrow’s Talent Today. These young people from the contractors’ staff and Network Rail are taking part in devising improvements rather than in my day being trained to duck and dive. They come to the Construction Directors Forum. And there is one more development. A pilot has been run on dispute avoidance management. It has been given the thumbs up by the entire forum. It’s now in full swing. We are looking for trouble way in advance of it happening.

In this five year programme the average spend is £5bn per annum; a total of £25.3bn in actual construction works. Now then, you can’t do that successfully without collaboration but the same goes for that tiddler of a building project just around the corner. Come to think of it, we needn’t use the word “collaboration” at all. Just say it’s common sense. That’s what we told the judges at Constructing Excellence, and Network Rail became the winner.

Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator at 3 Paper Buildings, Temple