What with battling the birds of prey and the ravenous alligators – not to mention the swine with the money – you may have picked up more survival skills than you realise

How can we survive the recession? How on earth should I know? Nor do you. Nor it seems do any of those boys and girls in Westminster. And lord knows, don’t ask the bankers. So there you are, we damn well don’t know what we’re doing.

But what’s new? The construction industry always has survived on a wing and a prayer. The architect, the engineer, the contractor, the subbie, the supplier, the plasterer – their jobs always have hung on a wing and a prayer. If that’s true (it is, honest), then we are part way to answering the question “How to survive?” And us folk in construction are familiar with that, aren’t we? So, my stab at the answer to the question, “How to survive in a recession?” is: “Do the same as always, with knobs on!”

So, what is our state of mind in ordinary times, when there’s no recession? We cheerfully accept that we are in the risk and shafting business. Risk and shafting goes hand in hand with designing and building and refurbishing and tampering with buildings. Next, in ordinary times we recognise that we are not just designers and constructors, we are moneylenders, too. You do the work, you pen the drawings, you putter-up the bricks, and then you ask to be paid. And the payer doesn’t – not yet. While the payer has your money, you are the moneylender who built the Temple. And by now, you have learned how to survive.

We cheerfully accept we are in the risk and shafting business. It goes hand in hand with designing and building and refurbishing and tampering with buildings

In ordinary times it’s ordinary for you to be at the thick end of things not going to plan. It’s true, isn’t it? Stuff gets specified wrong, gets made wrong, turns up late and wrong, gets installed wrong, goes wrong even if it was all right to begin with. And on top of that, in ordinary times folk change their mind about the building. The planned programme for next week falls apart by Tuesday morning.

Credit: Simone Lia

And there is more. In ordinary times, when you have a moment to look up, you see the birds of prey. Look down, and you see the alligators. These are the exploiters. Cock-up signals are sniffed at 1,000 paces, wallop, in come the claims, the letters, the drama, the blood. Oh come on, you’re at it too! You really are very good at how to survive. You’re even good at shrugging your shoulders when someone doesn’t make it. Par for the course.

Are you beginning to feel better? A recession is just ordinary times with knobs on. This is my fourth building industry recession, or rather downturn. Even recessions, see, are ordinary. My biggest fret in ordinary commerce is the bad debt. Oh, how it hurts to wrestle your way through the slings and arrows of construction only to find that the swine with the money has gone pop.

This is the first downturn with the construction act at our disposal. And it is making one helluva difference

So, what’s to be done? The downturn simply increases the care you have to take. You will never persuade commercial people to pay you up front; that’s not the way of things. So, in real life, you will take the risk. Then you watch out. But watch out first for your own rum behaviour. For goodness’ sake make those interim applications for payment, honest. Make them heave with detail. Don’t pull a fast one. But before that, when getting into a contract, make sure there’s a great big red piece of paper in it explaining what is payable and when. Within days of applying for payment, follow up by checking it is agreed. Be ready for a quarrel. Meet up and quarrel. Now listen carefully to the next bit. This is the first downturn with the Construction Act at the disposal of you payee folk. And it is making one helluva difference. Literally within hours of you realising that you are at odds about the next cheque, you can have an adjudicator on the pitch.

What can’t be removed is panic. Prices shorten in downturns. It’s up to you. Prices in UK construction are hopelessly too low already. By all means satisfy yourself with excuses. But, I tell you this; when you scrape through to the other side, you will wish forever that you didn’t take these “thin” jobs on. And if you take them on anyway, and look for every opportunity to exploit a cock-up, well you take a tiger by the tail. The birds of prey and the alligators in the swamp are used to the drama and the blood and love it.

You could do no better than get hold of that wonderful book … A Dummies’ Guide to Risk and Shafting. The only trouble is that it’s sold out. For now, just manage the extra risk. It’s only the same risk, with knobs on.

Original print headline - It’s a jungle out there