A great deal has changed over the last 20 years, but has the construction industry changed as much as Latham would have hoped?
Twenty years ago, in many respects, seems a world away. If you had a mobile phone and wanted to use it, you’d have to pull out its antenna first, and the UK top 10 was being dominated by a youthful Take That. That said, a World Cup was progressing without England, so maybe not everything changes.
But what of the construction industry over that time? Twenty years ago next month, a former backbench Conservative MP called Michael Latham was presented with an onerous task by his political masters: to come up with a way of fixing an inefficient, adversarial construction sector in which output had declined 39% in three years while the industry itself was seemingly spending more time in litigation than it was creating the UK’s social and economic infrastructure.
The UK’s construction industry had been decimated by the late eighties recession, in which it had topped the rate of bankruptcies of any sector of the country’s economy. Meanwhile, the client that had accounted for the bulk of the work - the government - had become far more fragmented, and tendered in a way that encouraged ruthless open market bidding by companies desperate for work.
It’s clear that while some elements - notably adjudication - have become staples of the current construction sector, the partnering ethos envisaged in Constructing the Team has yet to become truly embedded in the industry
Against this backdrop, Latham produced his now seminal report, Constructing the Team. The report’s proposed solutions to the crisis - collaborative working, partnering, and ways of more efficient dispute resolution - at the time represented radical changes to the way the sector worked. The ideas seem very familiar today, but how much is that really down to a changed sector, rather than the mere repetition of Latham’s rhetoric in subsequent reports, conferences and seminars?
In this week’s issue of Building, we present a detailed analysis of the adoption of Latham’s ideas. But in broad terms, it’s clear that while some elements - notably adjudication - have become staples of the current construction sector, the partnering ethos envisaged in Constructing the Team has yet to become truly embedded in the industry.
This is not to take away from the fact that there are many examples of best practice that would have been difficult to imagine back in the nineties; a fact that in itself shows that the Latham report has had a significant impact. But the pace of change has been slow, and, as former chief construction adviser Paul Morrell states below, remains “a work in progress”.
This begs the question of whether, twenty years on, the world envisaged by Latham is still the goal the industry should be aiming for. But the embedding of his thinking into every major study since, including the Construction 2025 strategy published last year, suggests resoundingly that it is.
That being the case, the plethora of industry and governmental groups that are trying to drive the modernisation of the sector arguably need to focus less on restating the case for Latham’s ideas, and more on driving the take up of initiatives such as payment reform and BIM that will bridge the gap between theory and practice.
Constructing the Team may be taking far longer than Latham would have predicted, but in constructing a sector that can service the UK’s built environment post recession, the implementation of its core ideas offers as much promise today as ever.
Sarah Richardson, editor Building