Sorry, folks, but joyful prospects for 2009 are thin on the ground

As most other industries are our clients, the news from sectors such as manufacturing and retail sounds like the steady tolling of a funeral bell. Tesco has told its consultants that it’s hacking back their fees (page 9) and housing starts have sunk to half the level they reached at the bottom of the last recession. Meanwhile, Alistair Darling is backtracking on forecasts of a recovery in the latter half of 2009. Darwin’s 200th birthday celebrations are a timely reminder, if one were needed, that only the fit and the adaptable survive. But even the best-run organisations would be helped by a few new year’s resolutions. Here are our suggestions …

From the government: how about more transparency? Gordon Brown told us at the weekend that the acceleration of public spending would create 100,000 jobs for construction. But this money has already been pledged in the pre-Budget statement. And does Brown have a magic wand to whisk away the bureaucracy that makes public procurement so painful. The story of a school project in Greenwich is an illustration of how knotted these problems can become. Then there’s the building of power stations, nuclear and otherwise. As Russia turns off the gas for much of Europe, we need to know what is going to be built where and when. Finally, Brown could resolve to implement the Crosby review’s recommendation that a £100bn fund be set up to get the housing market moving.

As for the industry, it could resolve to put on a united front for once. The formation of the UK Contractors Group was a good move: it has pulled in some of the bigger players and has moved construction closer to the CBI. But it’s left the Construction Confederation bereft of the Major Contractors Group, the National Contractors Federation and now the National Federation of Builders. The consultants have an excellent broad alliance in the Construction Industry Council. Can the contracting fraternity truly manage without something similar?

It could also be more inventive: now that skills shortages and inflation have receded as issues, firms have the time to rethink the way they work. That is, if other problems do not fill the vacuum, such as trying to extract money from one’s debtors. You only have to read Lindy Patterson’s piece on page 59 to see how parties are thinking of ways to turn contracts into baseball bats.

The industry should not regard co-operative working, sustainability and training as irrelevant to the Darwinian world it now finds itself in

This brings us to an even more important resolution: the industry should not lose its head. It shouldn’t regard co-operative working, sustainability and training as irrelevant to the Darwinian world it now finds itself in. Particularly training. The legacy of the last recession was a skills shortage that hobbled the industry for a decade; it was only saved by the fortuitous arrival of 250,000 or so skilled Polish workers. We can’t take that chance again. The UK Contractors Group is dedicating its first meetings to this problem, but how should the role of ConstructionSkills change to meet the threat?

Finally, keep up staff morale. What about offering staff extra holidays in lieu of pay rises? Or contributing to sabbaticals instead of making people redundant? Bosses should keep their peckers up, as well. The public sector is still pouring billions into construction. The first megaproject to get going will be the £16bn Crossrail scheme: programme and project managers are to be announced shortly (and it would be a great fillip were the government to select British firms). And it seems Crossrail is to adopt the enlightened procurement strategies of the Olympic Delivery Authority, which is also good news. Let’s hope the client has the same clear strategy and vision as the ODA’s David Higgins – and handles the politicians as well.

Denise Chevin, editor