Four years ago, when construction was comfortably ensconced at the old Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the government ran a scheme called Partners in Innovation.
This provided £7m in part-funding for 115 research programmes into everything from the behaviour of timber-framed buildings on fire to the impact of climate change on the building stock. It wasn’t a lot of money for the state, but it meant a lot to the industry.
Construction’s move to the DTI in 2001 coincided with that department’s review of funding for research and development. This concluded that the government should end all sector-based research programmes. The result was that research and training organisations suddenly found themselves wholly dependant on industry for funding. It also endangered some of construction’s larger independent bodies such as BRE and CIRIA.
So on the face of it, Monday’s announcement by Patricia Hewitt, the trade and industry secretary, that the DTI would be making £80m available for research into innovative technologies is good news for construction. The money is intended to bring about a “step change” in nine areas described by the government as high-priority. But some in the industry do not see it like that. The Construction Industry Council argues that the people advising the DTI don’t understand the way the industry works, and that large funding packages will favour large manufacturing industries. How can construction compete with a sector such as aerospace, which is dominated by a single British firm, has enormous political clout and is dependent on advanced technology? By contrast with this mighty tiger, construction resembles a flock of pecking chickens: fragmented, quarrelsome and, as a pressure group, largely ineffectual. The contrast is even greater when you consider the problem of convincing Whitehall that concrete is sexier than jet aircraft.
The case must, however, be made – and the price of failure is high. Without research funding, the industry’s technical knowledge will start to wither, and this will in turn have an impact on the quality of UK construction. And an inevitable consequence of an underdeveloped domestic market is the weakening of the industry’s export potential and an increased vulnerability to overseas competitors.
The case must also be made quickly: the industry’s bodies have until 7 February 2005 to put together a persuasive bid. And unlike some of the industry’s more gullible clients, the DTI will not fall for the ploy of claiming insufficient information, pleading for extra time and handing over the job weeks after the completion date. Therefore, construction needs a single body to co-ordinate its proposals, such as pan-industry research organisation Crisp. And it needs a single project manager to put it all together – such as the Mace boss who has just taken on the role of chief executive of Crisp … Bob White.
Andy Pearson, deputy editor