As she prepares to stand down as a board member at RLB and looks back over her 40-year career, Ann Bentley says she feels optimistic and realistic in equal measure
It is just over 40 years since I graduated from the University of Manchester and started out on my journey into civil engineering, into the built environment. Of course, 40 years ago it was not called the built environment but the construction industry.
As I write this column, my last one before I retire as a global and UK board director at RLB, and as an active member of the industry – apart from continuing to support the Value Toolkit transition to its new home at the IPA – I feel optimistic about how far we have come, yet realistic about how far we still have to go when it comes down to the things that matter in our industry.
Health and safety
In 1975, the number of construction workers who lost their lives at work that year stood at 182. In 1985 the number of fatalities had fallen to 126 , and this compares with 123 in 2021-22. That is still 123 too many and, although those figures don’t look like we have come very far, and although this certainly is not a finished piece of work, we have made many strides in health and safety.
In 2022, our responsibility to the health and wellbeing of those working in construction is far more holistic
In 1982 hard hats on building sites were not mandatory – amazingly that this only became a legal requirement in March 1990. And what we must remember when looking at these figures is that health and safety of those working in construction in 1982 predominantly meant the safety on a site, of those working on that site’s physical safety, with the mental health of those working on a site rarely acknowledged.
In 2022, our responsibility to the health and wellbeing of those working in construction is far more holistic. We share our stories, we are encouraged to talk, to take time out if we need it, to decompress and to gain balance in our work/life. We look at not just the safety of those who are physically involved in the build but also those who occupy the buildings, with health and wellbeing of occupiers rightly so high up the agenda.
The climate crisis
Likewise, in 1984 we did not talk about a climate crisis – perhaps it wasn’t a crisis back then, but there were certainly people in the industry talking about the environment, particularly around issues such as acid rain, hazardous waste, energy development and pesticides and other toxic substances. However, it has taken the last 10 years for our industry really to have woken up to its responsibilities.
I have written frequently about the role we have to play as stakeholders in our planet, and how as professionals within the built environment, the first question we should be asking ourselves is not how to build, but whether to build at all. Has the last 40 years made the inroads into the green agenda as we have on the health and safety one? Honestly, I am not sure.
We have proven that we can change the world when we need to, and now is the time to do it when it comes to the climate crisis
There is no doubt that there are lots of things being done, yet I feel that there needs to be a stronger coalition to really tackle what is racing at us like a bullet train.
Look how as an industry we came together during the pandemic to change things overnight. We have proven that we can change the world when we need to, and now is the time to do it when it comes to the climate crisis.
And what about the impact of construction within our communities? Nowadays we call it adding social value, with many larger companies not only aware of their social responsibility, but with measurements of the impact and value considered for each project. Yet, the industry is far more fragmented than it was when I entered it in 1982, with many more people self-employed or consultant based.
As I have advocated through the Procure for Value report and Value Toolkit work that I have undertaken with the Construction Leadership Council and the Construction Innovation Hub, we need to think of lifecycle value rather than short-term gain and the social impact of the built asset – not just the design and construction process. We need to ensure that each and every one of us within the industry understands and considers impacts and outcomes for users and society and that it is not just tier one contractors and consultants that have social value high on their priority lists.
People and culture
However, one area where we have seen real change is in diversity and inclusion within our workplace. We have come a long way in 40 years and there is no question that our workforces are more diverse in their gender, ethnic and geographical and socio-economic backgrounds.
How much does this reflect our societal changes and how much does it reflect the positive change in the industry? We know that we still have lots of ground to cover when it comes to attracting and retaining a diverse workforce and nurturing and encouraging an inclusive boardroom as well as workplace.
Only in May this year, Building reporter Daniel Gayne wrote about construction vacancies being at an all-time high according to the ONS, with 49,000 unfilled jobs in the UK alone. We know that this needs to change fast to keep our industry future-fit.
Would I do it all again? Yes indeed, absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt
When I look back at the past four decades, I think what a fabulous career I have had, what a great industry it has been to work in, what fantastic projects – from hotels to nuclear power stations, to large urban regeneration schemes – I have had the privilege to be part of and with such fantastic people, both at RLB and in the wider built environment. And would I do it all again? Yes indeed, absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt.
And what would I say to those who are fresh out of education and looking to make their mark in this amazing industry? Be cooperative and collaborative in pursuing your vested interests. And you will then look back in 40 years’ time and realise that moving forward in the centre ground – understanding that compromising a little in your own ventures to further the whole – is not failure. It is what is called long-term success.
Ann Bentley is retiring as a global and UK board director at RLB. She will continue to support the transition of the Value Toolkit from the Construction Innovation Hub to the Infrastructure Projects Authority over the next few months