The government’s Construction Strategy has led some to ask what’s different this time round. But they forget that until now the industry hasn’t changed because it hasn’t had to
The warm reception given to the Government Construction Strategy, published at the end of May, has been encouraging. It is no surprise, though, that it has been accompanied by reservations, and it is good to have this opportunity to address some of those.
If I had to paraphrase the reception to date, it would read: “This is a good strategy and, with a few reservations, we like it; but haven’t we seen most of it before? So why should we believe things will change this time?”
To the charge of, “haven’t we seen most of this before?” I plead guilty. I have been promising for the past 18 months that there will be no Morrell Report on the future of our industry. The thinking has been done, and there is no need to go over it all again. So although there are new ideas in there, at the core of the proposition lie two familiar objectives: the more consistent application of client skills within government, and a more integrated proposition from the industry.
It is worth saying that there are many skilled clients within government - and often, when public procurement is criticised, it turns out to relate to infrequent customers in the wider public sector, where an absence of skills is unsurprising. It is therefore worth the industry asking itself what it requires of its customers - and why. I think there are three particular skills that clients do need: first, to know how an investment in building contributes value to their purpose in life; second, how to communicate their requirements in a way that leaves the maximum possible room for a project team to deliver that value in creative but efficient ways; and finally, they would be well advised to know how much they should have to pay to get what they want. This should then become an element of their brief - not as an alternative to design quality, sustainability or whole-life value, but as one key part of the overall challenge.
As far as integration is concerned, no matter how much one might believe that a tighter relationship between design, construction and occupation will lead to an improved offer, this will not be achieved for the wishing. Instead, there need to be new drivers that shape the business models of individual enterprises - and the best that the government can do to stimulate change is to make sure that the way it procures aids rather than obstructs progressive practice. This will not happen overnight, and as much as one wants to reassure those with reservations, so also one wants to calm down those who seem to believe that they can go to bed one night and wake up next morning to a brave new world.
This leads to perhaps the most strongly held reservation: a doubt about whether anything will change. I think there is a coming together of forces that should dispel that doubt. Until now, the industry hasn’t changed because it hasn’t had to. It has been relatively protected from international competition, and has recently enjoyed one of the longest booms in its history. And when things are going well, it is only natural that we congratulate ourselves on how clever we are, rather than seeking better ways of doing things.
Now by contrast, I think everybody gets it: there is no money. There is still, however, a government that needs to build to meet social needs, and an industry that wants to build.
The first reason why things might change this time is therefore because of the sheer force of economic constraint, and the alignment of interests in finding a more affordable way to keep going.
The second reason is that I think we are catching a tide, with many companies already on a path to improvement. The time since the Latham and Egan reports has not been wasted, and many businesses in an increasingly professional industry have been developing more sophisticated propositions for their clients.
Now we have an accelerant: the extraordinary pace with which the potential of building information modelling is being realised. There are still many who misunderstand, thinking it’s something you can buy in a box, and like any tool it is only as good as the people who operate it. I do, however, choose to place a deliberatively naive faith in its capacity to bring together people and technology in a way that, while it cannot integrate those who are determined to stand alone, does allow those who want to work together to do so in a structured way.
The final ground for hope is that, in support of many past declarations of best practice (and there is already a wealth of guidance about good procurement on government websites), there is now a plan, with dates, that introduces some transparency to the process of change. It is not a plan that the government can deliver alone, and it has no intention of trying to do so. Instead, over the next month or so, there will be assembled a government/industry steering group, under the aegis of the Government Construction Board, which will play a key part in taking forward the programme, conducting much of its work through a series of time-limited task groups. The details of this delivery structure will be announced in July, and it will offer extensive opportunities for people of good will to get engaged - changing not just because we have to, but because we want to.
Paul Morrell is the government’s chief construction adviser