It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but we are going to have to move fast – and get unswerving government support – to make the Olympics a success

The 2012 Olympics – what an achievement for Britain, what an advert for London and what an opportunity for the construction industry to show what we can do.

When it comes to attracting international interest, there is little to compare with hosting the Olympics. As well as being a showcase for the world’s finest athletes, the 2012 Games give us the chance to create a global grandstand for our country’s building skills.

By then Heathrow Terminal 5 and the Wembley national stadium, two of the defining projects of the current decade, will be distant memories. Large landmark projects like these don’t come along too often, making the prospects offered by the 2012 Olympics all the more exciting.

The last time the Olympics came to London was in 1948. You’d struggle to find any surviving remnants of that occasion around the capital now, so the 2012 Games also give us the opportunity to provide a more lasting reminder of our nation’s aspirations and our industry’s abilities.

By that, I don’t just mean something physical such as a state-of-the-art stadium. In an age of ever-increasing automation and dwindling manufacturing capacity, construction continues to be one British industry that still relies on manpower. With that in mind, the present building boom soon to be further boosted by the Olympics should also be the catalyst for a drive to improve training and increase apprenticeships across the industry.

UK construction needs more craftsmen now and that demand is going to grow as the Olympic bandwagon gathers pace. A skilled workforce is essential to the industry’s future; apprenticeships and properly structured training schemes are one of the finest ways to ensure that we continue to develop those skills.

The momentum created by the Olympics can work to our advantage in this respect.

There is already talk of recruiting many thousands of young volunteers to work as helpers during the Games. We should capitalise on that interest and involvement by encouraging young people to play their part in actually building the Olympics, too.

For far-sighted employers will realise there’s never been a better time in recent history to recruit apprentices. The work is there now and there’s going to be plenty more to come, not just around the capital but also across the country as the whole nation rises to the Olympic challenge.

Too often, people who have never built anything before begin to tinker with the plans, alter the specifications and then wonder why the cost is soaring and the time is slipping away

It certainly won’t be cheap, nor will it be easy. Sustainability is going to be a big issue, not just in the materials and the methods used to build the stadiums and other facilities used, but also in their long-term running costs. Fortunately, as an industry we now have a better understanding of whole-life costings, and the many lessons learned from the PFI are just as applicable to an Olympic stadium as they are to a new school or hospital.

And side-by-side with sustainability sits viability – the two are inextricably linked and each has a big part to play in the success and credibility of the Games. Sadly, Olympic history is marred by too many loss-making Games and riddled with redundant arenas. As a nation we can’t afford that and as an industry we have an obligation to plan, design and build genuinely sustainable amenities that have an active afterlife, either as sporting venues or community assets.

But the construction industry can’t do it alone. This is a public-sector project on a scale seldom seen in the UK today. The government is the client but it is the country’s taxpayers who will foot much of the bill and they will expect to see their money spent wisely and well.

Many construction companies are already working at full capacity, particularly in the South-east, and their order books are filling up. Private sector clients are seeking assurances that they will continue to get the service they expect from their contractors, so a priority for the government must be to banish the bureaucracy, agree a prompt and practical procurement strategy and stick to it.

That’s made all the harder by the fact that it’s a public-sector project, so under European Union legislation, contractors from any EU country can bid for the work. Set against that, the government needs to remember that UK construction and related services already account for 8% of our GDP. So, no easy answers there either, but let’s hope the decision-makers don’t overlook the wealth of home-grown talent that’s more than capable of delivering these Olympic showpieces.

And, as the government grapples with all those issues, it must also consider how to control costs. One-off projects, built against the clock, have a habit of spiralling out of control. Too often, people who have never built anything before begin to tinker with the plans, alter the specifications and then wonder why the cost is soaring and the time is slipping away.

The solution perhaps is to appoint an Olympics tsar – someone with that rare but all-important mix of diplomacy, expertise and authority that will be needed to help oil the wheels, broker the deals and, no doubt, bang a few heads together when the situation calls for it. Finding the right person won’t be easy but it could be a decisive factor in the success of the 2012 Olympics.

Tsar or no tsar, over the next seven years the prospects offered by the Olympics are enormous – but so too are the pitfalls. As a profession and as an industry we can make the difference between success and failure, but we can only do it in partnership with the government. Our Olympic goals should be theirs, too.