Two years ago Jack Pringle took over the chair of the Construction Industry Council convinced the industry needed a forum where everyone could thrash out ideas to take to government. As he steps down, the same thoughts assail him
I have just handed over the chair of the Construction Industry Council (CIC) - the umbrella body representing all of the industry’s consultants - after two of the most interesting years in post. I started in the worst recession we have seen in my lifetime and ended in a fully-fledged recovery - at least in the south-east of England. It’s been an interesting ride, so now is a time for some reflection.
When I took the chair in 2012, Paul Morrell, the outgoing government chief construction adviser, told me, and anyone who would listen, that we had to fix the Strategic Forum for Construction (SFC). It was the one job he had not ticked off his bucket list. The SFC was the government’s main meeting ground for our industry but it was run on a “Buggins’ turn” basis with variable results. The main contractors - UK Contractors Group (UKCG) - would not turn up, as they preferred the CBI’s mainline route to ministers, and it was generally ineffective. Paul wrote a briefing paper so complicated that I could not understand it, but I agreed with his premise and felt it ridiculous that despite our hundreds of institutes and trade bodies there is not one where we can all get together to thrash things out and then take our case to government, developers or whoever.
So I did a six-page PowerPoint setting out a new structure for such a body and hawked it around the key parties - critically the UKCG. First, I got agreement from everyone, then the UKCG changed its mind, then it agreed again, then another U-turn - ad nauseum.
Enter Peter Hansford on the stage, Paul Morrell’s successor. An engineer, of the infrastructure variety, Paul was “one of us”, on the buildings side of the industry, and initially I was concerned that Peter would not understand our issues. I need not have feared. Whereas Paul was only too ready to tell us what we should be thinking, Peter is a good listener and a quick learner. In any case, the agenda had moved on.
We need a forum to thrash out stuff with the whole industry represented before we go into the Construction Leadership Council, where we should be as united as possible in dealing with the government
Vince Cable, coming from the oil industry, is used to long-term strategic planning and charged Peter with drafting a construction industry strategy for 2025. Peter asked me to sit on his advisory group, in a personal capacity as - I suspect - it avoided the issue of inviting or not inviting UKCG. The SFC was sidelined as an issue and we cracked on to draft a 12-year strategy. It was a punchy ride. Some thought the targets we set too ambitious, some thought not ambitious enough. I thought Peter struck the Goldilocks solution: 33% cheaper, 50% faster, 50% greener and a 50% reduction in trade gap. Big, hairy, audacious goals, but doable.
Peter performed a minor miracle in running around Whitehall getting ministers to sign up to the strategy on schedule and then the most important of all news was announced: the formation of a construction sector council to sit alongside the automotive, aerospace, pharmaceutical, etc. sector councils. Co-chaired by the secretary of state, Vince Cable, and the chap who had just sorted out the Olympics, Sir David Higgins, it was to be called the Construction Leadership Council (CLC).
There have been plenty of complaints about the CLC: it’s not representative enough (curiously UKCG doesn’t have a seat), the agenda is a bit random, the first meetings were, well, rubbish. But that misses the point. For the first time, construction - the UK’s biggest industry if you exclude the catch-all of professional services - has an agreed, ambitious strategy, a delivery vehicle (which Hansford chairs) and a sector council with the secretary of state on it.
What’s wrong with it (including having no architect now I have come off) can be sorted out over time. The important thing is to keep it going and give it full support. It is already finding its feet and has its first achievement - the highly contentious fair payment charter - under its belt. That alone will change the business model of all UK contractors for the better for the whole sector.
So, as the economy recovers and I finish my two-year stint at the CIC helm, handing over to the uber-capable Tony Burton, the thorny issue of the SFC surfaces again. What’s it for, do we need it? Well, the answer is the same; we need a forum to thrash out stuff with the whole industry represented before we go into the CLC, where we should be as united as possible in dealing with the government. And the problem is the same, too. The UKCG, under its present leadership, won’t play ball. Time for them to restructure their team?
Meanwhile, the CIC only has two problems: it’s so quietly successful representing more than 30 professional bodies that few people hear of it, and it can get outnumbered by the fragmented representation from contractors and their supply chain. But it’s in good hands.
Jack Pringle is principal, managing director EMEA at Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will