The construction industry’s public image has seen worse days, but there is much that still needs to be done. Communicating our successes and enthusiasm to the public will bring about the change that is needed

For many years the construction industry has worried about its image. Paradoxically, its products are generally very popular. Opinion polls tell us that the public like most of the shiny new buildings and elegant civil engineering projects of recent years. But they are much less enthusiastic about the industry responsible for creating them. Indeed, even in areas of persistent disadvantage and limited employment prospects, parents remain wary of their sons, let alone their daughters, going to work in the industry.

Why does this image problem persist? A decade or more ago, the industry could be described – not entirely unfairly – as dirty and dangerous with a poor record for delivering on time and on budget. But there have been significant changes in the intervening years, with a whole series of initiatives tackling the problems that gave the industry a bad name. By any measure, there has been substantial progress. The quality of the product and its predictability are much improved; so, too, are conditions on most construction sites. And despite the alarming recent rise in fatalities, the number of serious accidents and injuries are well below the levels seen in the 1990s.

Yet, for all the progress, there is still a long way to go if the industry is to enjoy a really positive public image. That means renewed commitment to continuous industry-wide improvement. Even if the best firms are achieving world-class standards, the industry will be judged on how it performs as a whole and the persistence of unacceptably low standards in any part of the industry will negatively affect the public’s perception.

However, it will not be enough to focus only on how well the industry is performing. We do need to be more active in communicating our successes. It is not sufficient just to unveil the splendid new achievements for which the industry is responsible, even though there are loads of them. In an age when the media are only too inclined to assume that delays and cost-overruns are somehow endemic to construction contracts, we need to remind them every time that a major project is brought in on time and on budget.

The industry should also be more imaginative when it comes to explaining to the public the complex processes that are involved in delivering a major construction project. Each year, the “Open House” organisation arranges access to thousands of buildings and some construction sites that otherwise would not be open to the public. The Olympics site in East London was part of the programme this year, and nearly 3,000 members of the public were able to see some of the remarkable works taking place to transform this former industrial wasteland, crisscrossed with power cables into an exemplary setting for the greatest show on earth in 2012.

Seeing is believing, and enabling the public to access the Olympics site is a great way to counter negative media presentation

Seeing is believing, and enabling the public to access such sites – for all the logistical and safety challenges – is a wonderful way to counter the remorselessly negative presentation of such projects by so many of the media.

Equally, the industry needs to learn from its opponents. This may sound surprising advice, but it is based on years of experience. Like most other MPs, I am bombarded by letters, emails and visits to my advice surgeries by constituents seeking to win my support to stop developments. However, I could count on the fingers of one hand, the number of times I have been lobbied by construction interests located in my Greenwich and Woolwich constituency. In case anyone should ask the question, we are not short of construction businesses in the area and many are doing impressive work.

Yet, all too often, the construction industry appears happier to keep its head down and get on with its job, rather than thinking about how to let the wider world know when they have good news stories to report.

Contrary to some myths, MPs are both human and generally responsive to constituents. If presented with evidence of some innovation in their area – for example, a new product delivering higher environmental standards, or the adoption of a new process to secure better value for money – most MPs will be only too pleased to trumpet them.

Never mind if they try to claim a little of the credit on the basis that it is happening on their patch (they are, as we’ve established, only human); they will still be powerful ambassadors and advocates. If the industry is to transform its image, it is going to need lots more such advocates in the coming years.