The restructuring of construction roles could stall relations between the industry and government

Sarah Richardson

The role of chief construction adviser and the Construction Leadership Council were introduced to address the problem of the lack of a clear means of communication between the government and an industry which provides around 7% of GDP. It is ironic, then, that the issue which seems to have brought the industry closer to having that elusive “single voice” than any other is the government’s decision, last week, to take a torch to these two functions.

The announcement by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that it will scrap the adviser role and dramatically scale back the membership of the leadership council has unsurprisingly been met with anger from across the sector. While construction might not have yet reached a state of universal agreement on what policies it should be advocating to government to best deliver the UK’s built environment priorities, at least it could agree that these two functions were helping it to do so.

The chief construction adviser position, in particular, has been instrumental in moving the relationship between industry and government to a position where it can produce the kind of long-term strategic action necessary to deliver a sustainable future for the UK’s built environment. It is inarguable that this is a work in progress, but just as inarguable is the fact that the role has been responsible both for setting a clear low carbon agenda (under its first holder Paul Morrell) and, under the current incumbent, Peter Hansford, for securing government and industry buy-in to a long-term programme of reform.

The conclusions reached by a council reduced in size will be dominated by too narrow a perspective

The axing of the post will, by its nature, make it much harder for the government to readily access advice on complex policy affecting construction. But perhaps the most concerning aspect of its scrapping is that it appears the new government is shaping up to be one which does not want to receive any advice at all where it might conflict with its overall political aims. As evidence, just take its abrupt U-turn on zero carbon homes - met this week with a furious response from more than 200 business leaders who, it seems, had no chance to voice their concerns before the snap decision was made.

The concerns over the adviser role, hard won after years of arguing that the industry did not have a clear route to talk to government, are perhaps the most pressing - as evidenced by the fact that the Construction Industry Council has even offered to fund the post to prevent it from disappearing. But the second blow - the cuts to the CLC - could also potentially have a major negative impact for the chances of a long-term attitude towards built environment policy.

BIS’ justification for reducing the size of the council - to make it sharper and more business focused - isn’t without logic; a smaller group of people will by its nature find it easier to reach conclusions. But by reducing that smaller group to one which looks set to exclude, or at best marginalise, the views of sweeping sections of the industry - QSs, architects, manufacturers, and SMEs - those conclusions reached will be dominated by too narrow a perspective: that of large contractors and their clients.

It is unrealistic to expect that the group will not be informed by its own particular interests. And even if the strategies the council adopts are those most likely to secure a stable environment for construction in the long term, without cross-industry representation its conclusions risk being undermined by counter lobbying from other groups.

All of this could be avoided if the government were to revoke its stance - reinstating the adviser position, and better balancing the slimmed down CLC membership. If it wants to show it will listen to industry, there would be no better place to start than acting on the outcry this week.

Sarah Richardson, editor