This year’s pay round is going to be unfair

Those trades that reached three-year agreements before the downturn are laughing. Plumbers got a 5% uplift in January, electricians received 4.5% (and will get 5% next year) and steel erectors trousered a generous 6.6%. In the deflationary times we’re living in, those are good deals.

The losers are likely to be operatives employed by the 12,000 building firms that are members of the Federation of Master Builders. They negotiate their deals year by year, and so both sides are in full possession of the grim facts when striking a bargain. The parties to the talks are the FMB and the Unite union, which together form the Building and Allied Trades Joint Industrial Council, or BATJIC. Usually, a figure would have been reached by now and firms would be updating their spreadsheets ready to implement it in June. This year it seems a settlement is not in sight. The FMB is reported to be pushing for a pay freeze – and if that’s what happens it would be a first in BATJIC’s history.

One has sympathies with the union’s position: a freeze is not a good precedent, and after all, few things are more distressing than watching your colleagues pocket an extra couple of grand when you’re effectively taking a cut. During the good times, the trades lost out compared with the professionals thanks to the flashflood of skilled eastern European workers that entered the UK after 2004. That said, a skilled worker under the BATJIC deal would have received a 27% rise in their pay packet over the past five years, so rises haven’t been exactly negligible.

These days, companies across the whole of British industry are announcing pay cuts, four-day weeks or redundancies, and the FMB’s state of trade survey last month found that workload is falling for two out of three of its members. But although the union’s job is to get the best deal for its members, negotiations have to be realistic. The BATJIC talks, like all the rest that get under way in the summer, ought not to be about raising pay but protecting jobs – and even if that means retabling deals that have already been agreed, so be it.

Adding up for the academically challenged

You’d have thought the government couldn’t afford to set light to £288m a month right now, wouldn’t you? But that’s what’s happening at the Learning and Skills Council’s college programme. According to BAM Construct (HBG, as was), the cost of delays is about £2m per project per month. Given that there are 144 schemes on hold, that makes 144 teams of paid-by-the-hour consultants being paid to do nothing. The loss is shameful. Actually, it’s worse than shameful – it was avoidable. The LSC approved twice as many projects as it had funding for.

Part of the problem is that colleges were told they’d have a better chance of funding if they were ambitious – so, in one case, a simple refurb morphed into a £200m regeneration project. But these bids were coming in all through 2008, so why did it take the LSC until January to admit the numbers didn’t add up? Colleges poured endless hours of staff and consultants’ time into schemes that were already doomed.

As the industry waits for an explanation, there is some good news. Partnerships for Schools, the delivery body responsible for the immense Building Schools for the Future programme, has been given control over most public sector schools procurement. The delays to BSF have been well publicised, but the reality is that its performance is improving, and the greater resources that will come with its expanded role may allow it to get even better. So why not give it the college programme too? Let’s face it, no other public sector client seems able to do better.