If construction has been likened to a flock of quarrelsome chickens, it is because industry bodies are concerned with nothing but their own place in the pecking order
Chancellor Gordon Brown’s pre-Budget report on 2 December convinced me that the next recession will hit us within six months of the coming election. The question is, will it be as damaging to construction as the last one in the early 1990s?
Recovery will certainly be more difficult. First, because most of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms that fuelled Brown’s “longest period of uninterrupted growth in the industrial history of our country” have been replaced by the most bureaucratic, regulatory and restrictive regime in our industrial history.
Then there’s the fact that real construction (the 80% of the industry that actually does the constructing bit) has lost all influence with government. Building’s Andy Pearson astutely observed (Leader, 3 December) that construction now “resembles a flock of pecking chickens: fragmented, quarrelsome and, as a pressure group, largely ineffectual”.
In 1989, the government interfered with the housing market and precipitated the deepest recession in the history of our industry. But in those days the Building Employer’s Confederation (now the Construction Confederation) had considerable political clout.
In November 1991, I chaired a BEC group that ran the first construction industry conference, Building Without Conflict. Then environment secretary Sir George Young was convinced by the confederation’s lobbyists that the situation was so serious that the government had to help the industry escape from external supervision for it to be able to modernise. That led to the appointment of Sir Michael Latham, Sir John Egan, Constructing Excellence and, alas, back full circle to recession and our pecking chickens.
Construction’s transition from the strong single-minded tiger, to the current ineffectual bird-brained flock is a direct result of the emasculation of the Construction Confederation by its largest members. Having persuaded the government that it alone spoke for the industry, the Major Contractors Group has selfishly all but destroyed the confederation and then fallen apart itself. They no longer want to be seen as constructors, but as project managers and supervisors in the professional and support services sector of the FTSE. They want to be the clients to the now disenfranchised real construction industry, regulating and dictating terms through their supervisors’ quango, Constructing Excellence.
For all its Movement for Innovation and Egan credentials, Constructing Excellence simply promotes the policies of its board members. The government wants to consolidate the industry to no more than a dozen service providers and, with the supervising consultants, organise cut-throat competition among the rest of us. The trade associations and institutions want to regulate and register to make money from their own members.
The Major Contractors Group has selfishly all but destroyed the Construction Confederation and then fallen apart itself
Construction needs an integrated organisation whose sole interest is to help its members, protecting them from government exploitation and regulation rather than profiting from it.
However, much the government tries to spin and bluff its way out of the present problems, everyone can see that contrived consolidation and pseudo supply chain partnering are not going to build the promised schools, hospitals and social housing. The government and its allies are alienating the local and regional real construction supply chains and pushing them into more reliable and satisfying markets.
I quite understand why the supervising consultants, project managers, regulators, accreditors, inspectors and major service providers want to maintain the fragmented status quo. They are the only sectors of the industry that are making money – and much of it is made from supervising conflict.
But if construction is to ride the coming downturn, this time it has got to seize control of the design and cost management of its own products. This can only be done through a nationwide network of turnkey design constructors, dealing directly with their own clients and saving 20% by dumping all those unproductive middle people. Before Sir John Egan was dumped by them, the word was “integration”.
Colin Harding is chairman of Bournemouth-based contractor George & Harding