The government’s track record of commissioning IT projects is dismal: the Passport Office, the Child Protection Agency and the NHS have all been involved in notable disasters.
The construction industry’s record of embracing IT systems is not much better: we all remember what happened to Atkins three years ago. So it’s not surprising that when you put the two together, there’s a risk of the blind leading the lame. And when they’re collaborating on an online tax system that is shortly to affect every firm with self-employed workers, it’s easy to see why the industry’s trade bodies are waving at the Inland Revenue like a man trying to stop a train from rolling over a cliff.
Everyone is in agreement that the plan to computerise the unwieldy process of gathering tax from self-employed workers is a good thing. Once an online system is up and running, the gruelling CIS paper chase will be over, and contractors will be able to find out with a few keystrokes who owes what to whom. What’s in dispute is timing. Organisations such as the Construction Confederation say the Revenue’s decision to push ahead with an April 2006 implementation date could have dire consequences, especially for subcontractors, who face a business-threatening loss of cash flow. The Revenue’s position seems to be that it has already put the launch back by a year, and the prospect of looming disaster might just be what’s needed to concentrate the industry’s mind.
One could empathise with the Revenue’s frustration if it weren’t for one salient point. The software needed to implement the system has not been developed, let alone tested. And why is that? Because the developers still haven’t received a final specification from … the Revenue. If one were being optimistic, one could agree that there’s nothing like a deadline to galvanize activity – particularly in construction, where spectacularly late projects have a wonderful habit of coming together at the last minute. But it’s hard to see how this particular chestnut can be pulled out of the fire. The Revenue has already suffered one IT embarrassment earlier this year after its tax credit system overpaid
2 million people by £2bn. Why risk another fiasco for the sake of a few months’ delay?
Tony’s latest twist
So, Britain’s poshest housebuilder is to become a social landlord (see news). It’s a surprising move by Berkeley Homes. Housebuilders generally have welcomed the chance to bid for a slice of the Housing Corporation’s £3.3bn social housing grant, but whereas the ambitions of most are limited to building homes to sell to housing associations, Tony Pidgley has other ideas. He intends to keep them as an investment – thereby growing, in effect, a housing association arm. Housebuilders have often been criticised for having no lasting stake in the environments they construct. This will not be the case for those making a long-term investment in affordable housing: those developments will have to look as good in 20 years as they do when built. What gives extra traction to this story is, of course, Pidgley’s legendary ability to predict housing market trends. If he sees there’s money to be made in being a social landlord, you can bet others will follow suit.