So, is the industry about to enter a more enlightened era? That’s the idea behind this week’s launch of an industry–government manifesto for improving construction’s performance in several key areas, from sustainability in the ecological sense to sustainability in training and recruitment.

And there’s a new set of targets to meet, so this is Egan mark II, if you like. There’s also a roadmap, in the form of the construction commitments put together for the 2012 Olympics by the Strategic Forum. Together they add up to a set of measures that the more professional companies in the sector are already working towards, and which the rest should be able to rally behind.

This time round we have been spared the messianic overtones of the Egan report; indeed, they wouldn’t be appropriate for what is by and large a pragmatic programme. That’s not to say all the targets will be easy to meet – or won’t require some financial sacrifice and change in business practices. Indeed the notion of supplying an extra 13,500 apprentices by 2010 seems as likely as building houses on the moon: we recently found out that out of the 12,000 people applying to ConstructionSkills for apprenticeships only 2,400 were given places.

Similarly on payment practices, those signing up to the construction commitments pledge to pay their suppliers within 30 days, at a time when holding on to cash is becoming a key survival tactic for housebuilders and a 65-day payment term is being treated by contractors like Carillion as standard practice.

At this stage it’s hard to say just how much momentum this vision of improvement will have, given the sector is preoccupied with the future of its order books. That said, as commercial work enters a decline, the government becomes an ever more influential client. Unfortunately, as the Tories have been quick to point out, it hasn’t always met its own sustainability targets.

The notion of an extra 13,500 apprentices by 2010 seems as likely as building houses on the moon.

The driving force behind all this has been construction minister Shriti Vadera, who has managed the impossible by bringing spending departments into line behind the commitments. Well done to her for getting those ministerial signatures. Making sure these signatures are turned into procurement and site practice is now the next big milestone. And it is a really big milestone.

Denise Chevin, editor            

Barratt on the brink

Barratt has lost 94% of its share price in the past year, leaving it worth just £213m on Wednesday. The City is unsure how far it can fall. But for investors to push the firm to the brink of administration seems bonkers – Barratt’s now worth less than a tenth of the nominal value of its assets (£3.1bn last June). An oil-rich Gulf buyer would surprise nobody – after all, the government is still pumping £8bn into new housing over the next three years and someone has to build it all. Let’s pray for sanity to return before it’s too late.