Paul Morrell’s first year at Westminster has confirmed that construction is not the most well-liked boy in the class. But to win friends, he says, it just takes confidence and conversation
Over the last year I have repeated, more times than people will have wanted to hear it, the reply of a senior government official to my question as to why the industry seems to lack respect in comparison with others. “You just don’t look,” he said, “like an industry that has a plan for its own future.”
Actually I don’t think this is a complete answer, because some of that lack of affection lies in the subconscious of the official mind. Governments and their officials are like jackdaws: they like new, shiny things - wind turbines and airplanes, and things with a metallic sheen or the sparkle of silicon.
By contrast, construction makes too much of its living down in the mud - but it is none the worse for that. We continue to live off the infrastructure left to us by the Victorians, built with the technology of a century and a half ago - and, by the way, at a time when the national debt was much higher than it is now. What we lack by comparison is not money, nor still less technology, but rather confidence, daring even, and a belief in a future well beyond the electoral cycle that depends upon long-term investment.
All we need, Jack Pringle says, is a little early collaboration. So there you have it: a bit of foreplay, but no sex
So, with a bit more daring and a lot less money, what has to change? Actually, nothing that we haven’t talked about before, but something about which we’ve done more talking than doing: integration - the simple idea that the whole supply chain, working collaboratively, should come up with a better proposition than any single link in the chain working alone. We’ve been kicking that particular can down the road for more than a decade now, but without seeing it become a new organising idea for the industry.
I think the reason is fear - and its immediate neighbour, distrust. Fear of change, of loss of position, of threat to a deeply rooted business model; that the designers might run through the money on a whim; or that the contractors, subcontractors and suppliers, having tucked themselves out of the chill wind of competition, will just make themselves cosy and take the opportunity to ride up the cost curve. Or, if given any hand at all in the design, will (in that self-serving term that substitutes for an argument) “dumb it down”.
In the face of these formidable objections, there is one sign of hope: as a consequence of PFI, there are now contractors who have started to understand that (in another over-worked expression) value is created on drawing boards not on building sites; and designers who have found that a conversation about how things are made can throw up many interesting possibilities. The catch is that PFI created waste of its own, effectively designing three jobs and throwing two away in the service of the crudest test of value for money: asking for three prices and accepting the lowest.
As it happens, I rather like the idea of paying the lowest available price - but I would prefer it to be an intelligent answer to an intelligent question; and if it isn’t, there is no real protection in a higher price. If you doubt that, next time an ill-defined or half-designed project comes back from tender, accept the highest bid, and see if the experience is any less gruesome.
So consideration about integration has to go hand-in-hand with consideration about competition; about how competitive tension is maintained in the system, both as a protection against laziness, and as a stimulus for innovation. I believe there are ways of doing this, and am discussing some them with parts of the industry, but the industry as a whole should turn its collective mind to it and start building it into that “plan for our own future” - a plan that would not just be nice, but is also necessary. As it says in the Innovation and Growth Team report on Low Carbon Construction issued last week, it is inconceivable that we can re-engineer our product to the extent necessary while those who make and fix its component parts are held at arm’s length from the process.
And who would lose out? Those who make their living out of others’ inefficiencies; or who act as almost invisible intermediaries in the current processes, charging a little and being worth less; or who simply don’t want to get on with the rest of the team.
Writing in this magazine a few weeks ago, Jack Pringle dismissed integration as a sacred cow due for sacrifice. All we need, he says, is a little early collaboration. So there you have it: a bit of foreplay, but no sex. Gratifying in its own way, no doubt, but quite incapable of producing the potential of a new life; and it’s a new life we need.
Paul Morrell is chief construction adviser