The select committee’s Construction Matters report is a fine piece of work, but that won’t mean much if its recommendations aren’t acted on.
House of Commons select committee reports come in lots of shapes and sizes and their quality is just as variable. At their best they can offer insightful analyses of complex issues and lead to worthwhile changes in policy and practice. At the other end of the spectrum they can be destined to end in well-deserved oblivion within nanoseconds of their launch.
So the publication of the first such report for many years on the construction industry was a test for the Business and Enterprise select committee. Would it be able to sift through the mass of often complex and sometimes contradictory evidence it received to distill the key messages? Would it resist the seductive by-ways presented by sectional interests so as to keep its focus on the issues that will determine the long-term success of the industry? And would it demonstrate the necessary judgment and balance to command respect both in Whitehall and the industry?
I am pleased to say that Construction Matters passes muster on all these counts. We have waited a long time for it, but the wait has been worthwhile. The committee has produced a thoughtful, serious and comprehensive appraisal of the industry that deserves immediate plaudits for a job well done, and – more importantly – serious attention from all those who need to act on its recommendations. Peter Luff, the committee chairman, his colleagues and the committee staff, deserve great credit for what they have achieved.
The committee has produced a serious and comprehensive appraisal of the industry that deserves immediate plaudits for a job well done
Wisely, the committee has avoided the temptation to reinvent the wheel and has acknowledged the significant progress made by the industry in responding to the Latham and Egan reports. At the same time it has recognised the degree to which further progress is required and the difficulties in driving reforms through the disparate range of bodies that make up the industry. The importance of the Strategic Forum’s targets, the Construction Commitments and the Strategy for Sustainable Construction are emphasised, as is the challenge of securing better co-ordination across government.
Here the committee makes its most radical proposal: the creation of the post of chief construction officer. The logic is clear: to establish a single main point of contact between government and the industry, and at the same time to install an official with sufficient clout to oversee best procurement and regulatory practice across Whitehall. In the past most calls for such co-ordination have tended to focus on the role of a construction minister.
Instead, the committee preferred the model of a senior civil servant with a role equivalent to the chief scientific adviser or the chief executive of UK Trade and Investment. They argue persuasively that such a figure would offer the long-term continuity that is essential to command the respect and trust of the industry and to wield effective influence across government. The logic is clear here, too: in recent years ministerial terms of office have become progressively shorter. Indeed, the committee wryly notes that within days of giving evidence to them as minister, Stephen Timms was moved to another post after seven months in the job.
There will almost certainly be parts of the civil service that would see the creation of a powerful chief construction officer as a potential threat
As the last construction minister to have served a reasonably long period in office (four years between 1997 and 2001, following three years as opposition spokesman) I am tempted to look back with nostalgia to that era, but I have to agree with the committee’s conclusion that a chief construction officer is the way forward.
The key question now is whether the government will accept and act on this recommendation. This cannot be taken for granted. There will almost certainly be opposition from within those parts of the civil service that would see the creation of a powerful chief construction officer as a potential threat to their interests.
But that is why the creation of the post is so important. The current fragmentation of responsibilities is not in the industry’s or the government’s best interests. It has often posed a barrier to reform and to the adoption of best practice. The report follows a long line of others identifying this problem. We must not allow this opportunity for reform to pass or worse to be frustrated by institutional resistance to change.
Nick Raynsford MP is deputy chairman of the Construction Industry Council