Will we look back at the summer of 2009 as a defining moment in construction?

In parts, the industry still resembles the one depicted in McAlpine’s Fusiliers. Can it be turned into one that is truly professional – where workers all pay tax and where it’s no more acceptable for someone to be killed than it is in a well-run factory?

One reason for thinking it might be is Rita Donaghy’s inquiry into construction deaths, commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions. This 93-page report is a cogent analysis of the industry’s underlying problems and makes powerful arguments for reform. Its 28 recommendations include measures the industry has spent years lobbying for, such as a full-time construction minister and more teeth for the Office of Government Commerce, whose procurement guidance for Whitehall departments suggests more weight be given to suppliers’ safety records. There are also proposals to tackle smaller sites by incorporating safety into the role of building control. Clearly, the practicalities need a lot of work, and the industry vehemently opposes other ideas, such as gangmaster licensing, but overall this report is the best thing to appear in a long time.

Another reason is Donaghy’s attack on bogus self-employment. She says it may be “an underlying cause of fatalities” because it promotes “low levels of training, job security and unsafe practices”. If the political will exists to tackle this, she says “it would probably be the single most important step that could be taken to signal to the industry and its workers that society expects standard to be improved”. Well, next week HM Revenue and Customs is to publish a consultation paper that proposes taxing workers at source, and unlike the CIS scheme it will take in National Insurance contributions as well. This will affect about 350,000 workers, and will undoubtedly cause pain the short term – there is an argument for having a longer lead-in than one or two years – but if the tax inspectors have the will to enforce it, then bring it on.

Of course, vast areas of the industry bear no resemblance to the pictures painted in McAlpine’s Fusiliers, and since 2001, when John Prescott put construction deaths high on the government’s agenda, there has been a huge shift in culture. Now we have the chance to put the whole industry on the same footing. So will we take it? Can we ignore the recession for long enough to improve an accident rate that is second only to farming? And erase the images of gangmasters pulling navvies from the pub, and workers using false names so that they can sign on and evade any form of tax? If we can – and if the general election doesn’t take away the opportunity – the industry will be transformed.

The practicalities need a lot of work but overall donaghy’s report is the best thing to happen to the construction industry in a long time

False economies?

How tough is too tough? With BAA’s new line on competitive tendering continuing to figure in our letters and legal pages, it’s unsurprising that the retail sector has hit the headlines again. Clients such as Tesco and the Co-op are taking advantage of the buyer’s market to knock chunks out of consultants’ fees, and in some cases to ask for money back – a practice more commonly applied to the producers who stock the stores than the firms who build them. The clients would argue they are acting as economic theory would predict and their shareholders would expect, but as we report, many construction firms are responding by offering a more basic service and being parsimonious with their partners’ time. The problem is what comes next: as we’ve pointed out before, in the end clients get what they pay for, and what is saved on the final account tends to be spent on legal advice …

Denise Chevin, editor