The Building the Future Commission kicks off on January 16. The project is an overdue opportunity to effect real change, says James Wates  


The start of a new year is always a good time for reflection as well as predictions, and this month I am looking back quite a few years.

In 2006, I gave the JCT Povey Lecture entitled Joining up the Dots: How the Construction Industry Should Punch its Weight. In that speech, I reflected upon numerous challenges that were facing the sector.

Unfortunately, we are still struggling with them: attracting the best people, integrating supply chains and taking advantage of new technologies to improve our efficiency – to name a few.

In that 2006 speech, I called on the sector to collectively change and shed its old-fashioned culture in favour of a more diverse workforce, with more collaborative leaders and representative associations all helping us to move in one direction towards greater efficiency, quality and social value.

James wates cbe

James Wates

That was an ambitious vision, but I had no idea at the time that we would have made such little progress in 16 years.

Since I began contributing this column to Building in 2014, it has been here that I have repeated some of the themes that I delved into in that 2006 lecture. These have included:

Skills and recruitment

  • More apprenticeships at the technical and higher levels, and in fields such as finance and IT, as a key step to bringing in a new generation of highly-skilled young people (columns in March 2016 and March 2017).
  • Attracting more women and workers from other sectors by creating more inclusive workplaces (October 2017 and June 2021).

Modern methods of construction

  • Implementing all the recommendations in Mark Farmer’s report, Modernise or Die (November 2016).
  • Joining up all the individual pockets of progress – such as new common platforms, using new technologies and reducing inefficiencies in how we work (March 2019).

Collaborative working

  • Creating a more collaborative ethos, and collaborating earlier in the process, in particular to enable us to incorporate more off-site manufacturing into our projects (July 2016 and February 2018).
  • Increasing the UK’s capacity to go after export opportunities in infrastructure, avoiding competing against ourselves in big international opportunities (July 2017).

Shifting the culture

  • Moving away from a lowest cost culture, with contractors being prepared to walk away from opportunities when bids arrive at unrealistic levels (March 2020).
  • Heeding the words of Dame Judith Hackitt when she said: “We are all part of complex systems in our lives and in our work, and we must remove the silos of self-interest. Let’s stop making excuses and start making changes. You know you can, I know you can, and you know you should” (November 2020).

These were efforts to nudge construction towards change, but the progress has been frustratingly slow.

I am pleased that Building  is championing change in a holistic and very ambitious way. I look forward to working with the commission and supporting its goal not just to identify problems (we have had plenty of that) but also to create solutions

On the positive side, we have collectively made tremendous progress in health and safety performance, and really created a culture of zero tolerance for harm to people on our sites or in our offices. We have made some inroads into changing the attitude towards mental illness, creating an environment where more construction workers are willing to talk about their mental health challenges as a first step towards wellness.

>>Click here to read more about the Building the Future Commission

Innovations in technology and greater use of modern methods of construction are helping to make us more efficient, but they are not being adopted at scale, in a truly disruptive way. If we look back at the metaphor Mark Farmer developed so well in Modernise or Die, our sector is now like a patient in the intensive care ward. The prognosis is not good.

Climate change and the race towards net-zero represent both a burning platform for the world and an opportunity for construction to exercise real leadership, especially considering the fact that the built environment represents about 40% of all carbon emissions. But we are not moving fast enough.

We know from experience – for example during the early days of the pandemic – that we can come together and work in collaborative ways without harming anyone’s competitive position. In this respect, our future is in our own hands, but it would certainly help if government gave us a bit more support.

In my 2006 speech I highlighted the fact that “our construction minister changes at least once a year. So they have probably only just begun to work out who we all are and what we represent as they move on to another portfolio.”

How disappointing that the situation remains the same. And coincidental that we recently found out that Nusrat Ghani, the BEIS minister, has been given responsibility for the construction portfolio, thereby becoming the fourth construction minister this year.

During 2021, we had three different construction ministers. We have had more than 20 in the past two decades.

We need to be holding the government to account for its failure to provide the consistent leadership that is commensurate with a sector that is delivering on the government’s own ambitions for infrastructure and the quality of life in the UK. The government’s Construction Playbook is a great recognition of its power as a client to drive change, but we find governmental clients at all levels not adhering to the playbook. We need the government to follow its own advice.

So now a more radical approach is required. It is time for us as a sector to come together and do what is necessary for creating disruption. Leave personal fiefdoms and overly cautious mindsets behind, and come up with new solutions to work together – as Sir Michael Latham urged us – as a team.

>> Also read: Building announces the Building the Future commission

>> Also read: James Wates to be replaced as chairman of contractor by cousin

I am pleased that Building  is championing change in a holistic and very ambitious way through its Building the Future Commission. I look forward to working with the commission and supporting its goal not just to identify problems (we have had plenty of that) but also to create solutions.

I am still optimistic, but my patience is wearing thin. Let’s work together to make change happen now.

Sir James Wates CBE is chairman of Wates Group

The Building the Future Commission


The Building the Future Commission is a year-long project, launched to mark Building’s 180th anniversary, to assess potential solutions and radical new ways of thinking to improve the built environment.

The major project’s work will be guided by a panel of 19 major figures who have signed up to help guide the commission’s work culminatuing  culminate in a report published at the end of the year.

The final line-up of commissioners includes figures from the world of contracting, housing development, architecture, policy-making, skills, design, place-making, infrastructure, consultancy and legal.

The commissioners include Lord Kerslake, former head of the civil service, Katy Dowding, executive vice president at Skanska, Richard Steer, chair of Gleeds, Lara Oyedele, president of the Chartered Institute of Housing, Mark Wild, former boss of Crossrail and chief executive of SGN and Simon Tolson, senior partner at Fenwick Elliott. See the full list here.

The project is looking at proposals for change in eight areas:

  • Skills and education
  • Energy and net zero
  • Housing and planning
  • Infrastructure
  • Building safety
  • Project delivery and digital
  • Workplace culture and leadership
  • Creating communities

>> Editor’s view: And now for something completely positive - our Building the Future Commission

>> Click here for more about the project and the commissioners

Building the Future will also undertake a countrywide tour of roundtable discussions with experts around the regions as part of a consultation programme in partnership with the regional arms of industry body Constructing Excellence. It will also set up a young person’s advisory panel.

We will also be setting up an ideas hub and we want to hear your views.

>> Email to get in touch