One year on from the Farmer Review, have the report’s conclusions been taken to heart by the sector, and by its biggest client, the government?
Next Tuesday marks a year since consultant Mark Farmer challenged the construction sector to “modernise or die”; the title of his government-commissioned review painting an apocalyptic picture that split opinion between those who felt it summed up the state of the sector, and those who dismissed it as flamboyant rhetoric.
But, with the past 12 months characterised by a raft of contractor woes, Farmer’s ultimatum seems – on an individual business level at least – more apposite with every profit warning that emerges. So, a year on, how far have the report’s conclusions been taken to heart by the sector, and by its biggest client, the government?
The sense that the industry is at a tipping point is nothing new to authors of government-backed reviews. The grandees of industry reports, Sir Michael Latham and Sir John Egan, both felt – in 1994 and 1998 respectively – that the moment to up the sector’s productivity had come. But while those reviews continue to exert a huge impact on ideas around industry reform, both were characterised by having a vanguard of supporters that saw the need for change, while myriad other businesses carried on just as they had done, for years after their publication.
This was the sector as a whole saying “this system isn’t giving us the skills we need”
So what seems immediately, and crucially, different about this latest “tipping point” is the extent to which the sector acknowledges its existence.
This was clearly demonstrated by the sustained criticism of training body the CITB which emerged during the industry-wide vote to renew its right to levy the sector. The vote has now concluded with 77% of the sector backing the organisation’s continued existence – but only with significant reforms.
The CITB is well-used to being a punch-bag for firms that complain they do not get value for money for their levy payments; but what was different, this year, was the consensus across the sector’s different types of employer about the need for an overhaul of training provision.
This wasn’t small firms against large, or supply chain against main contractors. This was the sector as a whole saying “this system isn’t giving us the skills we need”. It never really looked likely – despite very public criticism by contracting giant Balfour Beatty – that the CITB would lose the vote, but by putting so much emphasis on the conditionality of its support, the sector has sent the training body’s leaders a message they cannot ignore.
Meanwhile, the use of pre-manufactured and off-site construction methods – the central theme of Farmer’s report – is another reform that appears to be rapidly gathering momentum. As we report on page 30, firms across the sector are reporting huge rises in enquiries for modular building, while the past year has seen several of the sector’s biggest names – including Berkeley Homes – push forward plans for offsite development. With developers witnessing the cost and speed benefits of off-site construction on an increasing scale, it’s hard to see that trend reversing.
The real challenge for the sector now is how to stitch the pockets of progress and innovation together so that they become mainstream as quickly as possible
Farmer’s report has, however, drawn criticism for focusing too much on offsite production at the expense of digital technologies, with BIM not mentioned until almost half way through the document. Farmer’s riposte to this – that the impact of processes like BIM will be limited without a fundamental change to physical construction on site – will raise eyebrows among BIM evangelists. But the reality, surely, is that the biggest gains can be achieved when the two processes are used in tandem. And in terms of digitisation, the industry again seems to have turned a corner; the latest survey on BIM take-up by NBS, published in May, showed the biggest jump in BIM adoption for three years.
All of these trends suggest that the industry is on a path to modernisation, more so than at any other point for decades. But being on a path is one thing, moving along it, without getting waylaid, is another entirely. So the real challenge for the sector now is how to stitch the pockets of progress and innovation together so that they become mainstream as quickly as possible.
And that is where the government, the industry’s biggest client, has a huge role to play. A year ago, the Conservatives announced that the Accelerated Construction programme would use a £1.7bn fund to build homes on public land using modern construction methods. That it is has been delayed is one example of a missed opportunity to drive modernisation forward, faster. The concern is that, with an unstable government grappling with Brexit negotiations, it could be joined by many more.
The extent to which Farmer’s review has been the catalyst for change in the industry is debatable – but really, that’s irrelevant as long as the change is happening. What the report clearly does do is provide a focus for modernisation that sticks in the mind. And with all the other issues on the government’s plate, having a focal point that can serve as a reminder of the industry’s challenges is no bad thing at all.
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