It’s disappointing to see the reputation of the industry taking a battering again. That, inevitably, is the consequence of what the Office of Fair Trading is finding about anti-competitive practices in the construction sector.
In the past, the OFT has focused on price-fixing among global materials suppliers. But after a fortuitous investigation into the flat roofing sector in March of this year, it began to suspect that construction was institutionally collusive, and named it as one of its five priority sectors for 2005/06. In the past two months, 22 East Midlands firms have been raided. And this is, evidently, only an opening shot.
The effect of all of this is that, sadly, clients around the country must be wondering whether they’ve been hoodwinked by those on their approved lists, or by their trusted partners – which runs counter to the whole Latham agenda. And once begun, paranoia has a tendency to grow. Maybe the consultants are in on it? Maybe they’ve been turning a blind eye? Of course, those 22 firms are only under investigation; every one of them may be completely innocent. Nor are we necessarily talking about really serious corruption or organised crime. But if the OFT's suspicions prove correct, the "you scratch my back" culture is so endemic that a quick call to a rival down the road before putting in a bid has become the done thing.
Companies with sore consciences may salve them by arguing that collusion is really only sensible organisation: it evens out workloads, it ameliorates skills shortages, and it is a reasonable response to the unreasonable demand that contractors submit detailed tenders for every job they bid for – and once a firm is on a council’s approved list, it runs the risk of being kicked off if it doesn’t bid. Neither is construction the only culprit. A recent survey by the OFT revealed that one in five small and medium-sized firms in Britain believe they are harmed by price-fixing or bid-rigging. But whatever the excuse, every company in the industry knows that breaking the law is wrong. An industry that wants to enjoy the reputation for integrity and professionalism that many of its members truly deserve has to be able to win without cheating.
Those designers struggling to get to grips with the Building Regulations may be surprised to hear Paul Everall calling for a moratorium on changes to them. Everall was the head of the building division at what is now the ODPM for 13 years, and principal adviser to ministers on regulations. He is now chief executive of Local Authority Building Control, which means he sees the regulations from a different angle. In this week’s Regulations supplement, Everall says he’s lobbying for a pause. He says not enough attention has been paid to the enforcement of regulations and is now developing proposals to ease the burden on building control officers. Everall’s plans may not arrive in time for the revisions to Part L and the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, due in early 2006, but they should kickstart an overdue debate on where the regulations are going.
Denise Chevin, editor