For much of the last century, construction's main contractors and subcontractors were daft enough to shoulder all the responsibilities and risks of the business under a legal system that stacked the odds against them. In return, they were allowed the privilege of working at cost, while allowing the consultants to cream off a comfortable parasitic living from the industry and its clients in return for a less than satisfactory service.
These contractors, the mainstay of the industry, have been trapped in virtual slavery on the adversarial treadmill run by architects, quantity surveyors and project managers (soon to be replaced by prime and framework contractors) who need someone to supervise, to generate their fees and to blame for their mistakes. Rethinking Construction, with Sir John's formula for integrated teams and partnering instead of cut-throat competition, appeared to offer a lifeline to contractors who wanted to escape from the bondage of the parasitic consultants. So far, so good.
Then Sir John agreed last year to chair a Strategic Forum addressing safety and the implementation of the Rethinking Construction agenda. Anyone who had experience of small and medium-sized contractors and the small and occasional clients – 80% of the market – were specifically excluded from membership. Because of that, the forum has shot off in the opposite direction to Rethinking Construction. Instead of tweaking the integration and partnering principles to suit smaller contracts and clients, they are prescribing a deadly double dose of increased regulation.
The forum is proposing two additional layers of parasitic consultant: a beefed-up role for planning supervisors and a new breed of independent construction client advisers.
Modern integrated construction will not work if we replace one burden of parasitic consultants with another
Planning supervisors have failed spectacularly to do the job expected of them. Their role must be carried out by one of the project's construction team, architect or principal contractor.
The second idea is even more bizarre. The creation of ICCAs, all registered, all accredited and over-regulated, is totally alien to the key principles of Rethinking Construction. Modern integrated construction will not work if we replace one burden of parasitic consultants with another. A lean industry cannot afford external consultants of any kind. Everyone in the contractor's team must contribute positively and directly to the project's success and take a share of the responsibility. ICCAs, secretly allocating commissions and contracts in Masonic lodges, will take us back 40 years.
The government and the Strategic Forum, in order to support the small and occasional client and their contractors, should be helping the majority of the industry to integrate the process, not fragment it even further with more consultants and all the baggage that goes with them. Many smaller companies have for years been providing an excellent integrated advice, design, construct and facilities management service directly for their clients.
If the government continues to interfere in this largest sector of construction – which it does not understand and from which it is too arrogant to seek competent representation – then construction as a whole will soon degenerate into the next NHS or Railtrack.
Colin Harding is chairman of Bournemouth-based contractor George & Harding.