Two reports draw attention to the fact that the construction professions are as white, male and middle-aged as they were 70 years ago. It’s not good enough

Government procurement of construction may still have its flaws but the bureaucracy’s just-in-time delivery of reports is impeccable. As the curtain closed on this parliamentary session, the traditional deluge of government reports tumbled out of the Whitehall machine like confetti at a wedding. This year, construction and the built environment professions take leading roles in a few tomes – none of which make for comfortable reading.

Even if I blacklist blacklisting, we’ve had Rita Donaghy rightly demanding a higher standard of behaviour from the industry to ensure that a construction fatality becomes “socially unacceptable”. Her report, One Death Is Too Many, is an important read for us all. Along the way, she does the industry a further service in pointing out that construction “is more than just an industry” and deserves a full-time minister (preferably with a lifespan greater than nine months).

What is of equal importance, however, is Unleashing Aspiration, the all-party Milburn report on fair access to the professions. This concludes that all the UK professions (many of which are engaged in making and managing the built environment) recruit predominantly from the advantaged classes. Adding emphasis to Milburn’s conclusions, the Construction Industry Council (CIC) has just released its own report on diversity in construction, which concludes that “the construction industry has a long way to go to achieve it”, that there is a lack of basic information and, most damning, that “some professional institutes are not committed” to righting the situation.

We await the imminent publication of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into race in the construction industry, but I’m hazarding a guess that – at the very least – it will say that the industry as a whole is a long way from being an equal opportunity employer. One small fact that struck me from the CIC report is that the RICS has more members over the age of 91 than it has from the black Caribbean ethnic group. As the report concludes: “Visible minorities have extremely low representation.”

the rics has more members over the age of 91 than it has from the black caribbean ethnic group

Blimey, it’s almost 2010 but it still seems like 1935. Committee meetings are a way of life for me and I’ve been looking at a photo of a table surrounded by white middle-aged men discussing some construction policy more than 70 years ago. The only difference between that meeting and the ones I sit at now is that then, everybody was holding a cigarette or cigar. The ages, the gender, the race and (I suspect) the class of those largely moustachioed men is more-or-less identical to the imbalanced mix of today.

Of course, there’s a lot going on to improve things. Some professional bodies (the Chartered Institute of Building and Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists, for example) have excellent ladders and bridging mechanisms to encourage people from disadvantaged beginnings to work their way to a professional status. The CIC – with ConstructionSkills – runs coaching for children in inner-city areas to encourage them to enter the industry and it provides mentoring for those starting off on that journey. The Building Visions DVD encourages diversity. But none of this does any more than scratch the skin of an industry that is fundamentally not diverse. Using any of this to shout defensively about “how things have improved” misses the point just as much as an honourable MP with no second home allowance might bemoan the general attack on MPs’ expenses. The system is still rotten.

As comparisons with my aged photograph show, we’ve not made any real or sustainable progress to achieve sexual, racial or class equality in the construction industry. But it is an agenda that many of us are intent on improving. The cigarettes and moustaches may have gone; now all we need to do is change some faces.