It’s just a coincidence, of course, but the opaque sky over Britain this week accurately reflects the overcast mood in much of the construction industry.
Specialists have become the latest to report a sharp decline in second quarter orders, and figures from the Chartered Institute of Purchasing Managers on Tuesday show that activity has hit a record low. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a surge in insolvencies: Pricewaterhouse Coopers informs us that 35% more firms are going bust than this time last year.
Into this soupy gloom steps the familiar figure of the Right Honourable Nick Raynsford MP, the latest chairman of the Strategic Forum. Given his 30 years’ experience of the industry and his much-admired tenure as construction minister, Raynsford is perhaps the perfect man to help the industry grope its way through the darkness. What that means in non-metaphorical terms is getting the industry and its clients to adopt the forum’s Construction Commitments.
The temptation at the moment – certainly for smaller firms – is to focus their anxiety on work in hand and work in the offing, particularly if they’re exposed to the flatlining housing sector. To them, the commitments must seem about as relevant as a good book does to a drowning man. Clearly, however, improving health and safety, ending retentions, cutting waste and establishing reasonable payment periods are all going to help firms win clients and make money; it’s just a question of inspiring them with the belief that the Commitments are the best way to do it.
Likewise, contractors would do well to heed the warning this week from Greenpeace over the sourcing of timber. As Allenbuild found out at its Admiralty Arch refurb a couple of years ago, the other end of timber supply chains can be attached to very unpleasant things. Greenpeace says the UK spends £716m a year on illegal wood. If it’s right, then neither good intentions nor regulation is working – not surprising given that there is no effective regulation.
Once again, it may be difficult to persuade firms to pay more to become ethical consumers when the cost of their materials is rising like a jet-assisted banshee and clients are behaving like Primark-shopping bargain hunters. However, as with health and safety, the best way to reward the virtuous is to have an effective system for prosecuting the rest. The European commission is preparing a legal framework to do just this, so firms that do use illegal wood would be well advised to begin training staff in the mysteries of chains of custody and Forest Stewardship Council certificates.
For firms exposed to the flatlining housing sector, the commitments must seem about as relevant as a good book to a drowning man
And they’re off!
Braving the heat and smog, Building’s bloggers will be endeavouring to bring us their experiences as participants in and spectators of the
Beijing Games. Log on to our website to follow the stories of Graham Watts and others. Watts and the fencing team he manages will have a tough task emulating the success of construction’s past Olympians but we wish Team GB the best of luck.
Stuart Macdonald, deputy editor