Happiness, there’s not too much of it around in construction at the moment.
Apparently the secret is to have good relationships with the people we work with, so being a confrontational kind of sector, it’s not surprising that a recent poll found builders to be the grumpiest workers in Britain. And that’s not even to mention the credit crunch, which of course brings its own brand of misery.
But if you do want to cheer yourself up, take a flick through the long-awaited report on construction from MPs on the Business and Enterprise Select Committee. It’s not the most heartwarming of documents, mind – in fact it’s a compendium of everything that makes the industry a difficult place to work. What’s so good about this report is that it recognises that construction can be better, that it needs to be better, and that government has a central role to play in making it better. And it lists a panoply of recommendations to provide “long-term improvement across the sector” that will help it to “weather the current storm and prepare for future challenges”, from banning retentions to the blanket use of project bank accounts. This is the closest view construction has of Shangri-La right now.
What’s more, it’s as flattering and empathic as its title, “Construction Matters”, suggests. Even the issue of the Office of Fair Trading investigation, about which MPs might have been tempted to deliver a stern lecture, is treated with common sense and, again, empathy. Although the committee is keen that bid rigging and cover pricing be stamped out – as are we all – it points out that everyone will lose if the fines are so large that they cut capacity and competition. Its main criticism of construction is over its record on apprentices, and the fact that only a quarter of firms take them on is indeed a disgrace.
So, what effect will it have? Will the government cherrypick a few suggestions, or (as with most select committee reports) ignore the lot? Well here’s three items on our wishlist:
A dedicated enforcer who is in it for the long haul would really show that our industry is being taken seriously
1. The appointment of a high-level civil servant to be a champion for construction. If we had someone akin to the chief scientific officer, the government just might be able to make good on those Construction Commitments – assuming they are tenacious and dedicated enough to co-ordinate the work of all those departments and transform government procurement. Much is still mysterious about how this role would function in practice; for example, would the holder be part of the Cabinet Office or the Treasury? But we shouldn’t quibble about details just now. Shriti Vadera, our present government handler, has won the industry over, but a dedicated enforcer who is in it for the long haul would really show that our industry is being taken seriously. Which just leaves the question of who would want the job …
2. Ban retentions. That would lift thousands of companies out of misery at a stroke.
3. Make Constructionline work or bin it. If we could at long last lighten the burden that multiple prequalification imposes on firms, many of their employees might wake in the morning with a song on their lips. Let’s hope it happens …
Denise Chevin, editor