Michael Latham was just one of a long line of ‘gurus’ seeking to transform construction. They all failed but at least Sir Michael successfully transformed the legal process

Tony Bingham

Well, well … It’s been 20 years since Sir Michael Latham’s Constructing the Team report was published. In 1994 he gave us constructors a thick ear. He described the industry as ineffective, adversarial, fragmented and incapable of delivering for its customers. And he very nearly spotted why. Nearly. 

Mind you, he was not the first to lambast those of us in construction: Sir Harold Banwell said the same in 1964; Sir Harold Emmerson said the same in 1962; Sir Ernest Simon said the same in 1948 and before that in 1944 (he got two knighthoods).

They had all cribbed from Alfred Bossom’s 1934 book Reaching for the Skies when he had the cheek to proclaim “the process of UK construction, instead of being an orderly and consecutive advance down the line, is all too apt to become a scramble and a muddle”. And the whingeing hasn’t stopped since Latham.

In 1998 that fellow of Jaguar cars fame, Sir John Egan, gave us Rethinking Construction and in 2002 the follow-up Accelerating Change. By then, my Jaguar wouldn’t accelerate anywhere. That year we got Modernising Construction by the National Audit Office telling us to discard our adversarial ways and become tree-huggers. We had M4i Movement for Excellence.  

If I have heard “teamwork” once, I have heard it a hundred times …  And “collaboration” … And “co-operation” … And “partnering” (where did that go?).

Now let me ask you a question. Has anything changed? Anyone of us with insight into our industry could have written Mr Bossom’s 1934 book, and Latham and Banwell and Emmerson and Simon, and said precisely the same then and now as he did. It’s all a scramble and a muddle. 
I love it.

But Latham did not, nor did the others, dig down as to why we are so enthusiastic about a fight. It’s tricky territory. It’s because no one, no architect, no engineer, no contractor and no subcontractor knows what they are doing. Fact. It starts with a piece of fiction and a fib. The bid process for all of us including the architect pretends to price a given project. Tosh. 

In truth what constructors are asked to price for is a load of twaddle. The job, within minutes of starting on site, goes off the rails. It changes or isn’t ready or needs information. The architect, the contractor, the subbies shrug - it’s the way of things. The price, by the way, the bid, was a guess - a stab in the dark. Worse still, there is another pretence: the price is founded on what the specification and drawings say. We all pretend it can be done efficiently. 

Latham nodded in this direction but that’s all.  He said, limply: “It is best practice if all projects are fully planned as has been recommended by previous reports such as Banwell […] That remains the ideal […] This assumes perfection and no changes of circumstance in time, demand or finance.” 

That is an utterly daft attitude. And wrong in fact. Most projects come out for bids, and begin and continue and end (late) because they are half designed, begging for information, and awaiting decisions. It’s all done on the hoof. Spot a bald man on a building site, it’s because he long since pulled his hair out. Damn it, will you architects give your clients a roasting about the utter nonsense of starting a job while there is oodles of sorting out yet to be done?

Latham and the others say we are “adversarial” - this is wrong. It is an absolute must to claim loss and expense. This is desperation talk, not fighting talk. To be fair, none of these Latham-type gurus, 20 years and more ago, had the insight we have now. The position is the same worldwide. The job is not planned because the once leader of the whole process – the architect – has abandoned their leader role. It is just too complex for one person to complete the design and specification down to the last nut and bolt and avoid changes. So changes, or late information, or mistakes, are ordinary. In which case there is disruption, disputes, extensions of time, and variation disputes. Fingers are pointed, bottoms are covered, and letter writers become contractual. What do you expect if you build on the hoof? You get disputes and frustration and fed-up folk. It’s the same disputes in every part of the building world. 

Latham recognised one ever so important weakness - the law business. Our dispute-resolving systems simply cannot cope via litigation. So he was encouraged by some of us to “invent” 28-day adjudication. He gets top marks for enshrining it in statute. And across the globe “our” adjudication - Latham’s idea - is embedded. Latham didn’t sort out the construction industry at all - he sorted out the law industry. We lawyers deserved a thick ear too, and got it. Thank you, Sir Michael … Have another knighthood.

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