The Co-op Live debacle is symtomatic of the awful PR that too often plagues our sector when high-profile projects go wrong, says Richard Steer

richard steer BW

What have Take That, Peter Kay, Olivia Rodriguez and the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) all got in common? They have all been impacted by the failure of the now infamous Co-op Live venue to be delivered on time amid a massive national outcry.

Set against the disasters unfolding in the Middle East, Ukraine, Myanmar and Yemen, the fact that a few irked concert goers were denied an evening of fun on a wet Wednesday in Manchester is not the end of the world, in my view. However, for those operating in the built environment, it is symptomatic of the awful PR that often plagues our sector on high-profile projects that go wrong in the public eye.

Why, you may ask, is the CITB lumped in with Gary Barlow and Peter Kay? Well, their latest predictions are saying that output levels between now and 2028 demand an extra 251,500 workers – the equivalent of an additional 50,000 a year – to cope with hotspots such as private housing, infrastructure and repair and maintenance.

>> Also read: Uh-oh… Co-op Live’s woes leave industry with familiar sinking feeling

With so many vacancies in our sector, we don’t need mum, dad or gran castigating the builders for their missed concert and encouraging young Jane or Johnny to avoid a career in the construction industry where things always seem to go wrong. Implicit failure joins the growing list of reasons not to take up construction apprenticeships, along with the inflexible, muddy boots image that still plagues us.

For every successful Olympic Games and Nightingale hospital delivered to great fanfare, there is always the Wembley Stadium fail, the Channel Tunnel delays or HS2 debacle. I was talking to a peer in the House of Lords recently who is writing the election manifesto for one of the major political parties, and he pointed out to me that there were hundreds of qualifying bodies connected with those working in our sector and that every discipline has a representative body as its standard bearer.

They were all beating a path to his door, imploring him to include their “ask” in the list of things that a new government might prioritise. He simply did not know which organisation spoke for our sector. They all had an agenda.

My own primary institution – the RICS – for instance, covers 18 disciplines. We are all under one umbrella organisation but, frankly, my role has little or nothing in common with an estate agent or arts and antiquities specialist.

It is no wonder that any government shuffles housing and construction ministers around monthly without care. Without a single, strong voice, divide and rule is the game

The RIBA, CIOB, ICE, CIBSIE, APM all represent different aspects of a huge industry. It is such a diverse and multi-disciplinary sector – and those are just the professions.

Looking at the trade or artisan side, you have the FMB, or the unions, or HBF for the housebuilders – yet more groupings that seek to represent those operating in the built environment.

What the peer in question wanted, however, was for one voice unifying and representing construction to give him a clear indication of what was required to deliver the skills, training and increased productivity that will ultimately improve the industry overall. It is no surprise that successive governments have been shuffling housing and construction ministers around almost monthly without a care. Without a single, strong voice, divide and rule is the game.

Why this is significant and aligned to the Co-op Live failure is because often, when there is a crisis or a disaster, the industry default is to run away and hide. As I understand it, BAM are the builders in the firing line for the Manchester Co-op’s problems. Most other contractors will silently be offering a prayer to the construction gods, grateful that it wasn’t them on this occasion.

There will not however be a combined industry response, or any kind of PR campaign highlighting any late changes the client may have made to the specification for the project, the possible supply-side problems that could have affected materials deliveries, the calls for contingencies in timelines that were advised and then ignored.

This may well all come to light in what I am sure will be a litigants’ jamboree in the months to follow, but my point is that the bad publicity accrued through this debacle affects us all. Yet we remain so fragmented and uncoordinated as a sector that at no point do we think outside of our own parameters. This is often not the case for the automotive, pharmaceutical, retail or banking industries.

The only voices heard will be those missing their concert or the promoters looking for scapegoats. Not a great advert for our industry, that actually has a lot to be justifiably proud of

When there is a systemic sector image or issue, the big firms tend to bring in their trade body to do the talking, deflecting away from individual brands and also protecting the whole sector. So, Kellogg’s will not be defending sugar in children’s cereals, but the Food and Drink Federation will be on hand to present the industry response to obesity.

If you asked who represents construction, the media have not got one go-to body, and so in the case of the Co-op Live scenario, the only voices heard will be those missing their concert or the promoters looking for scapegoats. It is not a great advert for our industry, which actually has a lot to be justifiably proud of.

Perhaps it is time we got together and established a single point of contact that can become a voice for everyone – deployed sparingly but speaking for the sector in general terms. Silence in adversity is not the answer to improving our image which, were we to do so, would give recruitment a vital boost.

Richard Steer is chair of Gleeds Worldwide and a Building The Future Think Tank commissioner for people and skills