Recent interventions by senior politicians into the sector highlight the pros and cons of engaging with our industry – it’s better when they don’t chase headlines

Simon rawlinson landscape

Last week it was reported that Theresa May had been required to intervene into the organisation of the Grenfell inquiry, responding to widespread calls for the appointment of an expert panel to support the second phase of hearings. Her response highlights the positive impacts that politicians can have in moving matters forward in response to a powerful case, but also demonstrates the administration’s problems in managing public perception of its role in the tragedy and its aftermath. If the agonies of Brexit were not enough to contend with, the prime minister must ultimately channel the UK’s response to the unfolding crisis triggered by Grenfell. These are unforgiving and reputation-sapping tasks demanding attention to detail, deep empathy and plenty of bandwidth – resources that are scarce in any administration, let alone a minority government.

On the same day, the leader of the opposition spoke publicly about other industry specifics – including the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV) as well as the poor payment practices that blight the industry. Clearly, both issues need careful debate. The immediate future of urban regeneration could be significantly affected by the resolution of the HDV, while sorting out payment issues cannot be separated from wider initiatives to improve industry performance. Jeremy Corbyn’s arguments, particularly that there should be another law requiring payment within 30 days, highlight the risks of applying the politician’s broad-brush perspective to a fiendishly difficult problem. It’s not just that there is already legislation in place to deal with payment in construction, but that late payment is the symptom of deeper problems at the heart of the industry’s need to transform itself. 

It matters when politics and industry collide because their words can have real heft at a local or sector level. Comments by Labour’s NEC look as if they have been highly influential in determining the future of the HDV. Similarly, Sajid Javid’s engagement with the housing crisis has moved the agenda forward, but with a distinct preference for solutions coming from the private sector. What’s more, this week, MPs will publish further findings on Carillion. Politicians’ interventions in industry should perhaps be rare and should always be used with care, calling out or responding to genuine injustice as is the case with Grenfell, or perhaps in nudging the industry in the right direction – highlighted recently by Chris Grayling’s advocacy for the Transport Infrastructure Efficiency Strategy (TIES). 

Construction is about to be thrust into the political spotlight, not only with the publication of the Hackitt review, but also with the forthcoming launch of the Construction Sector Deal. Both are highly contextual pieces of work, attempting to drive significant change into a complex and fragmented industry. They also have the potential to become entwined, with recommendations in Hackitt likely to increase the momentum for change that underlies the prospectus of the Construction Sector Deal.

Crises and transformations are the stock in trade of the ambitious politician and construction’s challenges and travails could make great copy

With such significant developments coming up, it would be unreasonable not to expect politicians of all hues to create opportunities to make and score points. Crises and transformations are the stock in trade of the ambitious politician and construction’s challenges and travails could make great copy. On the basis that political interventions need to be clear, simple and designed with an outcome in mind, here are some suggestions as to how our leaders can best contribute to the debate over the next few weeks. 

Firstly, construction is of course a huge, complex industry, employing nearly 3 million people to deliver essential infrastructure and housing. The sector’s overall contribution to the economy as an enabler is often overlooked when specific problems associated with a project or a business become the focus for public comment or criticism. The industry is good enough at painting itself in a poor light without needing further help from onlookers. We need to keep reminding ourselves that the UK industry can be world-beating on its day – not only in terms of the complexity of many of the UK’s programmes, but also the quality of the design and craft seen on so many schemes. Politicians could be positive as well as probing.

Furthermore, it would help if commentators could be more willing to recognise that projects themselves are complex undertakings. This shouldn’t let construction businesses off the hook for poor management of delivery but will highlight the particular skills that are needed to successfully meet client requirements in a volatile and uncertain marketplace. One common example, the building and management of successful project teams, often from scratch, highlights many of the people skills found in the industry – even though it also emphasises the problems that we create for ourselves with a fragmented and adversarial business model.

Finally, politicians should reflect that in many ways, clients get the industry that they deserve and in doing so, should support many of the emerging initiatives in the public sector, such as Project 13, which aim to change not only the way in which projects are procured and delivered, but also how they are led by clients to deliver well defined outcomes. 

In 2018, the construction sector will be exposed to well-deserved criticism as a result of serious shortcomings in the way that projects are designed, managed and delivered. As an industry, we need to be ready to respond quickly and decisively to calls for change. Our political leaders will help this process no end if they keep their contributions focused on the matters at hand – driving change rather than headlines.