With the first Government Construction Summit taking place this week, we take a hard look at the industry’s relationship with Whitehall

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This week’s issue has an unapologetically public sector feel to it. We’ve used the opportunity of the first Government Construction Summit - which took place on Monday this week - to take a hard look at the industry’s relationship with Whitehall. The industry should care about public policy - government still buys over a third of all construction workload. Its power to set the agenda is unrivalled.

Obviously we have in-depth coverage of the summit itself (pages 9, 15 and 20-21) at which Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude led the charge in reform of procurement. Maude’s pitch was very clear, and pretty fair - the government will be a better client than it has been but in return the industry has to reform the way it works. It must become better at delivering what it says it’s going to, and at an even lower cost. Some present at this week’s event have criticised him for offering little new. But be careful what you wish for - consistency of policy is absolutely vital if we want to make progress.

Consistency has been possible so far because chief construction adviser Paul Morrell has been a great success in terms of unifying industry and government around a vision of collaboration, supply chain integration, long-term predictability of workload and BIM. A little bit of unity can go a long way but it’s something industry needs to get much better at (page 32).

Make no mistake as to the extent to which the government is making a special case for construction - it could even be said it’s making too much allowance for the industry’s backward practices on payment and integration. Remember that the biggest government contractors were spared immediate cost cuts when the coalition came to power on the basis that a bigger prize, savings of 20%, could be achieved by working together. But how much difference will the promised policy reforms actually make, assuming they can be implemented in the first place?

The government is making a special case for construction - it could even be said it’s making too many allowances, Joey Gardiner, assistant editor

Other big news stories this week show that the government still lets political expediency take control over good practice when it suits it (page 9), and that dealing with a government client - in this case in the defence sector - remains a frustration (page 13). Although changes to this are very welcome, on their own they can’t save the industry from the downturn.

We need urgent progress from the government on work coming forward. The rhetoric from Cameron and Clegg is of growth, but the reality is of huge cuts to spending programmes - on education, housing, roads, flood defences, to name just a few - and of an industry returning to recession.

We’ve heard talk on getting infrastructure projects going but not seen much action. There’s an urgent need to reshape the rules of public-private partnerships following the political assassination of PFI but, again, we await progress. And the increasing clamour to bring forward spending
on repair and maintenance is one the government shows no sign of heeding.

So, yes, the industry does want more. But if one thing is clear from this week’s conference, it’s that if it wants more work, then reform in the way it operates is a minimum condition.

Building’s Client Intelligence White Paper is a guide to the spending intentions and the outlook of the most important public and private sector construction clients. To order copies click here.