In many walks of life, there is evidence that the underdog is fighting back in the age-old battle of big business vs the little guy.
Just look at the growth of farmers’ markets, popping up all over the place in response to the growing clamour to buy locally grown produce. People increasingly acknowledge that it’s good for the local economy and better for the environment.
Construction has always been a two-tier industry: there are the nationals who take the bigger contracts and the small local builders who build a few extensions, replace the school windows or re-roof council houses. The two have co-existed, barely crossing into each other’s orbits. But all that is changing. As we report this week, a new survey carried out by the National Federation of Builders – the trade body of small contractors – confirms what many have been complaining about. That is, that public sector minor works are increasingly out of local firms’ reach, as councils and housing associations bundle up contracts into one big framework agreement.
From the client’s side, it’s easy to see the attraction of procuring building work in this way. It’s far more efficient and potentially more cost-effective. After all, it’s what the Egan and Latham reports encouraged them to do. But Egan’s vision of partnering had small contractors subcontracted to the nationals, and they don’t want that because they know they won’t get paid promptly and they don’t have legal departments to fight their corner.
While work is plentiful, the loss of school and council work has not put small companies out of business. In the longer term, however, it will. Some might argue that’s not necessarily a bad thing – larger firms are far easier to regulate and can be more forward-thinking. On balance, though, surely more is to be lost than to be gained. It’s not very sustainable to have lorries driving over from the next county for small jobs, is it? Neither is it efficient to get one of the big boys to mend a council tenant’s pipes when a local contractor might have worked on that block for years.
And what about all the folk trained by the local builder? The nationals are hardly queuing up to hire apprentices: a particularly salient point this week as Gordon Brown pledged to double the number of apprenticeships to half a million by 2020.
Like the debate going on about the local economy and food, we need to be discussing the benefit to the local economy of the good local builder. If public sector clients wanted to support their local firms, they could start by introducing simplified application processes for frameworks.
Many small firms do partnering naturally because they have to get on well with clients and subbies or they won’t work again. It would truly be ironic if the frameworks that were brought in to encourage partnering shut out the businesses that have been doing just that for generations.
Denise Chevin, editor