Enough doom and gloom – there are many ways we are making this industry better, and many more ways we can make it better still. The key is to be confident

james wates bw 2018

Reading the news headlines continues to be a depressing activity, with (at the time of writing) the inability of political leaders to reach agreement on Brexit terms continuing to put British industry at a disadvantage, unable to plan for what trading rules will be in place after 29 March.

Construction’s pinch points resemble many other industries’, with access to labour and materials particularly in question, but given ultra-low margins, our sector is more vulnerable than many to the disruptions that would be caused by a no-deal Brexit. So I would have liked to hear a louder voice from within government championing our concerns. 

At the same time, there is plenty to be optimistic about. While Brexit uncertainty has caused some clients to put projects on hold, there are still many impressive infrastructure and regeneration projects moving forward.

One of the challenges for our industry is to break out of the mindset in which collaboration somehow inhibits competition 

More importantly, we’re transforming our sector. Across the built environment, a lot of progress towards the change we all know is necessary is being made, albeit in pockets. These efforts need to be scaled up and joined up, with more collaboration and a more widespread confidence to adopt new ideas.

One of the challenges for our industry is to break out of the mindset in which collaboration somehow inhibits competition. We as an industry are continually making progress on developing new common platforms, using new technologies, and reducing inefficiencies in how we work. This doesn’t mean we’re any less competitive.

For example, the existing system for pre-qualification of suppliers is complex and repetitive and a major barrier to improved productivity in the sector. There is a multitude of pre-qualification schemes currently in operation, and this means around 180,000 specialist contractors produce over two million pieces of paper every year in order to do business with 5,000 contractors. In total, this creates costs of up to £1bn.

The problem isn’t the good ideas, it’s whether those good ideas can get into the mainstream of how we work

To address this, Build UK and the Civil Engineering Contractors Association have been working on developing a new prequalification system, the first phase being launched soon. This system will bring clients, contractors and the supply chain together, all using a single questionnaire for business assurance. This means simplification and efficiency of effort – with companies providing only one set of information annually, in a format that allows them to evidence their capability clearly. 

The key will be critical mass, which should be aided by endorsement of the new system by the Construction Leadership Council and government (it’s already explicitly referred to in the Construction Sector Deal). I’m optimistic that the new system will be widely adopted, so it can really make a difference in overall productivity.

I’m also inspired by some of the technological initiatives that are helping to modernise the way we work. Once again, the problem isn’t the good ideas; it’s whether those good ideas can get into the mainstream of how we work. 

This often is a matter of confidence. If you have the good ideas, have the confidence to share them. If you are presented with the good ideas, have the confidence to jump on board.

Of course, government support can help. The launch of a construction innovation hub was announced in late 2018, with BRE, the Centre for Digital Built Britain, and the Manufacturing Technology Centre coming together as delivery partners, backed by significant government funding. The initiative will drive the actual implementation of technologies such as digital design, advanced manufacturing, robotics, drones and augmented and virtual reality. And it all dovetails nicely with the big-picture Construction Sector Deal. This could be exactly what we need to convert some of the great new ideas into the mainstream of the construction sector.

A great way of spreading best practice is to make better use of digital training, with Forbes predicting that by 2025 digital education will be mainstream and globally worth $300bn (£230bn) a year. As chairman of the BRE Trust, I know that the BRE Academy, for example, has invested significantly in its digital platforms. This means its high-quality courses (many based on BRE research and knowledge), are more readily accessible.

A lot of good news stories in our sector are about better data sharing. Opening access to data for business partners as well as the general public can provide real opportunities for collaboration and innovation. Here again, BRE is at the forefront of this, making its own data available on open platforms, aligned with environmental, social and governance standards.

That’s the sort of leadership and progress that we should be shouting about, rather than letting the Brexit conundrum depress us. Companies are gaining the confidence and commitment to turn the good ideas into action. Bit by bit, we are modernising the way we work and making the whole system more efficient. Let’s focus on the positives and keep making progress. 

James Wates is chairman of the Wates Group, the BRE Trust and the CBI Construction Council