Six months in and Build UK is already making a difference on illegal working, pre-qualification, payment issues, the skills shortage and apprenticeships. It’s also got different parts of the industry talking to each other

James Wates

Earlier this month we celebrated the half-year anniversary of Build UK. Six months after it was created by the merger of the UK Contractors Group and the National Specialist Contractors’ Council, we felt it was a good time to celebrate. As joint chairman, I was proud to have the opportunity to step back and consider what we have accomplished.

It wasn’t easy creating the organisation in the first place. The merger brought together the largest contractors and 40 specialist associations, which in turn represent 11,500 companies. It was a huge undertaking.

Naturally, there is some tension between these very different types of business but confronting the sources of that tension is essential to improving our industry. Issues such as payment terms, a lack of trust in the supply chain, and questions about who has responsibility for skills training have held us back. So we needed to have honest conversations in order to create an improved industry. The creation of Build UK has enabled many of those conversations.

We should have those difficult conversations with confidence. At the heart of it all, we depend on each other to get things done. Ultimately, all members of Build UK have the same ambition: to run a successful and profitable business. So there is much to unify us.

Problem is, in the past we weren’t unified. And in the face of opponents who were unified, we were easy targets. We let others define what “good” looks like, what represents best practice, what actually works for our industry.

Now, with six months under our belt, it’s clear that Build UK can make a difference. We’ve already started to work as a partner with the government, for example, working with the Home Office to confront the issue of illegal working. Understandably, the Home Office is keen to reduce the numbers of illegal workers in all industries, and the construction industry was perceived as particularly high risk. In the face of some onerous enforcement proposals coming from the government, Build UK stepped in and helped develop and gain consensus around a clear set of standards and expectations for what employers are obliged to do.

In the past we weren’t unified. And in the face of opponents who were unified, we were easy targets

We’ve also worked with the public sector to develop a new pre-qualification process that will be simpler, more efficient and cost-effective, while still providing reassurance that the supply chain is competent. We’re pleased that the Cabinet Office will include it within their procurement documents, and both local authority and private sector clients have welcomed the industry’s leadership.

Payment issues, too, are critical. This is a fundamental focus for Build UK: to ensure that every company gets paid fairly and promptly for the work they do. But we need to do so in a way that is right for the industry. To this end, we are supporting the Construction Supply Chain Payment Charter, and we hope many of our members will sign up. And once the governmental reporting requirements for payment performance are implemented, Build UK plans to take the bold step of benchmarking our members. There may be some bitter pills to swallow, but it may be the medicine some of us need.

Another focus of Build UK is on addressing the industry’s skills gaps. Quite simply, we in the private sector cannot just stand by and expect others to solve the problem for us. Logically, the skills minister Nick Boles has challenged Build UK to show leadership on the issue of skills, and I’m pleased that Build UK, working in partnership with CITB, is responding to this challenge.

The skills shortage is an issue close to my heart. I want to win the War for Talent, which means not just competing against other sectors for the best people who already have the right skills, but also helping young people with passion and drive to get access to the education and experience needed to develop those skills and just get started in construction.

I am convinced that apprenticeships will provide a valuable route into the construction industry, and that is why I agreed to join the government’s Apprenticeship Delivery Board. But I am aware also that we as an industry need to shift preconceptions and move away from seeing apprenticeships as just being for the trades. Apprenticeships can be a vehicle for helping people at any stage in their careers to upskill, and I am hoping that the construction industry will grasp the opportunity to develop more apprenticeships at the technical and higher levels, so that apprenticeships can be the entry point into not just a job, but a career.

The industry that has been plagued by lack of unity is now coming together. I believe that Build UK can become a centre of gravity - continuing to grow and attract new members, and engaging intelligently and forcefully in policy debates so that it becomes the voice of the industry. Six months in, we may still have a long way to go, but it’s clear we’re on the right track.

James Wates is chairman of Wates, the CITB and Build UK