Michael Latham - The new strategic forum for construction is a boost for the Egan agenda that, on topics from partnering to safety and recruitment, will drive reform further
Nicholas Raynsford's decision to set up a strategic forum for construction, announced earlier this month, was wise and timely.

I do not suppose that anyone in the DETR remembers 1994 – no reason why they should – but I looked again at the final chapter of Constructing the Team, which deals with possible delivery mechanisms for the review. I recommended a step-by-step approach. The first step was the formation of a standing strategic group drawn from the construction industry and its clients, and chaired by the secretary of state or another DETR minister. This could be concerned with the review process, and it could be the principal forum for bringing clients and the industry together.

I also proposed a review-implementation forum to decide on four basic questions:

  • which review recommendations could be implemented by existing structures within the industry
  • how to deliver the other recommendations, including the proposed legislation
  • whether there should be a formal delivery agency
  • whether there should be a construction ombudsman, as some trade bodies wanted.

The government, the industry and clients decided to set up this forum, which then came out in favour of legislation and the setting up of a body, and against the ombudsman.

The implementation forum completed its work in December 1994 and the new body, called the Construction Industry Board, was born in February 1995. The board was given the dual role of delivering the recommendations of the review and acting as the standing strategic group. Constructing the Team recommended that it should be small, with a five-year lifespan. Don Ward, the board's chief executive, and his team were never more than five in total, and their organisation actually lasted six and a half years.

In due course, hopefully the taskforce will become the forum’s safety progress-chaser

The wheel has now come full circle. There is to be a strategic forum for the industry. At the beginning of April, when the CIB was in crisis, I was approached for advice by senior political sources. I recommended that a new board have a major figure as chair, preferably the minister himself or, if that was not possible, Sir John Egan. Client involvement was essential. The new board should be set a lifetime of two years, with overall responsibility for delivering the Egan agenda. Regarding the vital issue of safety, I felt that it must not be divorced from construction and production. Safety is not an add-on; it is part of the process.

That is more or less what is to happen. The strategic forum is to carry on with the Egan agenda, but also deal with such topics as image, culture, recruitment and skills shortages. It will support partnering and cultural issues and tackle health and safety and "respect for people". A welcome addition to the groups now comprising the CIB will be representatives from the training sector.

It is unclear if trade unions are to be involved, but there is a strong case for them to be. I periodically suggested that they should be involved in the CIB when I was chairman from 1995-6, but the unions themselves did not feel this to be a priority. I was surprised that they were not immediately included in the board after Labour took office in 1997.

It remains to be seen how the forum will interface with the proposed DETR taskforce on safety. Egan is to chair both bodies, so there will be co-ordination at the top. Presumably, both organisations will also have DETR administrative support. There are real political sensitivities here, and the safety taskforce must have trade union safety experts on it. In due course, hopefully this taskforce will become the forum's safety progress-chaser, single-mindedly demanding improvements in the industry's record.