The industrial strategy for construction asks the industry to do a lot ‘in partnership’ with government. But why are we the ones being asked to do more work for less money?

Tony Bingham

‘Oh dear,” I heard myself say, “here we go again …” Yes folks - it’s another construction industry strategy document. It’s called Government and Industry in Partnership: Construction 2025. And here is what it suggests we do …

The cost of plastering is going to come down by 33%. So too is the cost of the piling and groundworks, and superstructure, and roof and screeds, and M&E (wow, I bet you M&E folk are pleased), and ceilings, and glazing and, well, all of it. The government, by “working together” has “developed a clear and defined set of aspirations for UK construction … for 2025”.

Thank goodness the government used the word “aspirations” - for one tiny minute I thought they meant it. The aspiration is a 33% reduction in the cost of constructing an office block, school, house and hut. There’s more: this 75-page government story is telling us that we will save 50% in the overall time from inception to completion of new build and refurb jobs.

I, for one am excited. Let’s look at how these government folk are going to do it. Thumb the pages with me. Begin with page 22.

Here are “Our joint commitments”:

(1) “Build the UK’s competitive advantage in smart construction and digital design through Digital Built Britain Agenda.” That’s knocked £2/m² off plastering for a start.

(2) “Develop market and technology based plans to secure the jobs and growth.”

(3) “Identify global trade opportunities.” In other words go and do plastering in Cairo.

(4) “Improve the image of the industry by inspiring young people.” Inspire them to become plasterers who plaster at twice the speed and a third of the price.

(5) “Address construction issues in a strategic manner.”

(6) “Develop and refine the pipeline of future work.” Are you keeping up?

(7) “Drive procurement efficiency and explore options for further efficiency.”

(8) “Address access to finance.” Hooray!

(9) “Work with academic and research communities to bring forward research.”

(10) “Lead the transformation of the industry through the new Construction Leadership Council with actions owned and delivered by industry bodies.”

So, what do you think of all that? Did we get the plastering down by six quid a square metre? I mean to say that if we can massively speed up the lads doing the putter-uppering we can get the time aspiration down by that 50%, if they plaster twice as quickly and work 28 hours a day and eight days a week - easy.

No, I am not taking the mickey.

I admit the report starts badly. It comes from government, and you folk in that village haven’t got it yet, have you? Don’t produce a report like this and think that folk will swallow it.

The talk of “strategic priorities”, “the action plan”, “the target dates”, the talk of “Drivers of Change”, it doesn’t wash. What the hell do you mean when you say “develop a co-ordinated approach to engage young people” (all by “Winter 2013”)? Who writes this stuff? This is waffle.

The implication in this document is that our construction industry is duff, inept, too expensive and idle. So, the government says get your prices down by 33%, and speed up your work.

So, let me tell them how to get their act right:

(1) You ask contractors to price the job when you haven’t made up your mind what you want. The price given is for a guess. Then the contractor is utterly messed about by your change orders. That’s where you, not the industry, cause 33% loss. Why do your jobs take 50% longer? It’s because your change orders delay progress. Make no bones about it, it is you that is the root cause of blowing the budget.

(2) Next, this industry can’t invest because it makes no profit. It never makes money out of disruption claims and disputes. Let it make money from change-free works and then it will have the cash to employ these kids, buy that plant, and have time to innovate and invent.

(3) The commercial risk in construction is massive. Hardly any job comes through without a calamitous loss somewhere down the line.

So the response is clear. HM Government, take your woolly words in this “let’s blame industry” document and start again. It’s you who have to get your act right, not the plasterers.

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