Last week, our columnist gave the government a piece of his mind over the Construction 2025 strategy. This time he explains how it should be changing its own behaviour in order to make savings

Tony Bingham

Last week I gave the government a thick ear. It is demanding, that our industry gets costs down, and saves time in delivery. It’s all in a report called Construction 2025. I want to continue this ear bashing. Let’s try to help.

The government doesn’t know what to do. It knows this: the turnout cost of construction is always, without fail, much higher than the original anticipated cost and is always late. People like me witness all this because increased costs, over-run programmes, claims disputes and quarrels are our game. On every job it seems there are masses of rows about variations and compensation because “things” have sprung up. I took the government by the throat because it was told umpteen years ago – it buys building work wrongly.

In 1965, the government commissioned a report. It was called The Placing and Management of Contracts for Building and Civil Engineering. It’s known as the Banwell Report. And then in 1967 was a report Action on the Banwell Report. It paid particular attention “to the effect of variations from the original contract on the productivity of the industry”.

It said: “Those who spend money on construction work seldom give enough attention at the start to defining their own requirements and preparing a programme of events for meeting them.”

Then these folk pointed to a document headed, Plan before you build, dated 1955; and another document Preparing to build in 1965. Then it recommended: “As the complexity of construction work increases, the need to form a design team at the outset becomes vital.”

Do you want an adventure into the unknown? If you go out for bids to the contractor and the design is still incomplete or things still have to be decided you will enter the unknown

And do you know absolutely nothing came of any of this. Banwell and the Action folk criticised employers - like the government - for causing the job to become riddled with problems. It highlighted lack of decision or late decision by the client or designer or by the client changing his mind about what he wants: clients who do not brief the architect properly about requirements. Liaison between constructors, designers and client is especially difficult when a committee represents the client.

It said, all those years ago: “Variations have different effects. Some result in greater efficiency, but the vast majority impede the progress of a job and reduce productivity.”

The Action report went on: “We consider that many variations are unnecessary and could be avoided if clients were more aware of the effect of their decisions or lack of them on others. One common characteristic of almost all variations is that there has been insufficient forethought before starting work on site. Time spent on preparation before actual commencement of work on site is time will spent”. Go on – find a space on your wall and pin that up.

That includes all you clients, especially the government. Why? Because all that was said nearly 50 years ago … and it still applies 100% today. Don’t you dare demand a better performance from us: look to yourselves first.

Break all this down to simple steps. First, the employer decides what is wanted. Then engage the designers. Listen carefully to this next point. These designers are those with hard won qualifications: able to design; able to write a very detailed specification; able to articulate what’s to be done to build.

Ask yourself this Mr Employer – do you want an adventure into the unknown? If you go out for bids to the contractor and the design is incomplete or things still have to be decided you will enter the unknown. The bids you get will never turnout to be the final account; you will not get a job on time for the price unless you have identified every nut and bolt at bid stage and then have stuck to it, like glue.

All those years ago these Banwell folk said, “we regard variations as being endemic to the building progress and its foolish to condemn them out of hand”. I say, you can have as many variations as you like, change everything if you like but do not whinge. Your turn out price, your programme completion date will be nothing like the out-set price and programme.

The government says it wants 33% saving. That is easy. Decide what you want, design it with professionals, get bids from professional contractors and damn well let them build what you said in the first place. Never mind 2025 – if it wants the government can do it tomorrow …

Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator at 3 Paper Buildings, Temple