So are we all agreed, then? What the government needs is a construction industry that is able to turn public investment into buildings and jobs
The benefits to the country’s health, education and economic performance are obvious. And it’s equally obvious that a client that spends £28bn a year ought to be able to get what it wants, not least by setting an example itself. So why doesn’t it? As we’ve pointed out before, the ministerial accelerator doesn’t seem to be connected to the industry’s engine; just this week we discovered that prisons are being delayed.
The select committee that produced the Construction Matters report was in no doubt that the government was part of the problem: how can you co-ordinate policy for an industry when that policy is being produced by (count them) eight Whitehall departments? Well, in the absence of proper ministerial representation, the MPs suggested that a chief construction officer be created. What they had in mind was a charismatic individual who could get the government working as a best practice client and orchestrate everything from regulations to export guarantees. The industry certainly thinks this is a good idea: in fact, it’s one of the few things all its members agree about.
The only party that seems lukewarm is the government itself. At least, that’s the impression given by the consultation document it published this week. To begin with, it’s clear that whoever lands the role will have to adapt themselves to the existing machinery of government. Surely it would make more sense to begin with a rethink of the way industry and government work together and make the arrangements accordingly? Then there’s the bewildering level of detail in the document. “Should a formal mechanism be introduced to regulate contacts with the CCO?” “Has the document identified the right organisations and committees where the CCO should have an influencing or facilitating role?” Well only Sir Humphrey, or someone with a lot of time on their hands, could answer those kinds of queries.
Only Sir Humphrey, or someone with a lot of time on their hands, could answer the kinds of queries in this consultation document
In theory, it’s a good idea to consult the industry over such an important appointment, and it’s clear that championing an industry that accounts for 8% of GDP is bound to be more encompassing, and more nebulous, than, say, a chief medical officer. But one has to ask whether the status of the role – a grade II civil servant – would attract a Margaret Ford or a John Armitt? These are the kind of people we need: equally at home in the boardrooms of industry and the jungles of Whitehall, and with the clout and the courage to tell ministers and permanent secretaries they are wrong. On the evidence so far, we’re unlikely to get them.
Pain for you, gain for me
Fees and tender prices are dropping like stones and inflation-busting pay rises have given way to pay freezes. Some firms, such as Gleeds, have elected to impose pay cuts instead of redundancies. And a senior QS that could have asked for £80,000 a year ago would only be offered £60,000 now. But where do bonuses fit in? Construction has never paid the kind of obscene sums that bankers take as their entitlement, and indeed, most pay is hard won. Where the bonus culture has been most prominent is housebuilding. Bellway caused a stir when it proposed paying three directors more than £600,000 despite their failing to meet their original targets, and Persimmon might be heading for a similar spat. The argument for bonuses is that you need to motivate people even more – and hitting targets is even harder – when times are tough. But, when 40% or more of staff are being laid off, as is the case with most housebuilders, perhaps a six-figure basic salary should be incentive enough …