First person The annual dinner is a stuffy tradition construction needs to update — and that means more than just changing the dress code.
I might be mistaken, but I thought the construction industry was trying to project a new image. You know the sort of thing – efficient, dynamic, international. The kind of environment that school-leavers and graduates of both sexes will flock to. How come, then, that dozens of times a year, quantity surveyors, contractors, engineers and most of the other trades and professions get trapped in a 1950s time warp? I’m talking about thousands of mostly middle-aged men donning dinner jackets and decorations to head up town for a boys’ night out, officially known as the annual dinner.

It’s not that I’m against a good party. I’m as partial as the next person to aperitifs and petit fours. And I know there’s sport to be had on these occasions: guessing who’ll be standing in for Nick Raynsford; or how many top-table guests will nod off before the speeches are over. Neither would I wish to rob members of the RICS or the Heating and Ventilating Contractors Association or whoever their chance to bond with other tribe members. Mind you, a bit of Egan rationalisation wouldn’t go amiss – I gather even Construction Confederation president Sir Martin Laing has been mooting that. And who knows, if a few of these dinners were integrated, the industry could make some headway into its 10% cost-cutting target.

It’s just a shame that, when the industry has just delivered the likes of the millennium wheel and the dome and our architects and engineers are revered the world over, and when contractors and quantity surveyors are at last getting switched on to IT and e-commerce, these achievements aren’t mirrored in its dinners. What’s so often on the menu at these occasions is the unedifying spectacle of the president, armed only with a Paul Shane joke book, delivering lines worthy of a cross between Prince Philip and a Butlins’ Redcoat. Anyone who attended the recent do in London where their honoured leader made some tenuous and cringingly naff link between the Movement for Innovation and a dose of the clap will know precisely what I mean. Isn’t it time to modernise these occasions, to bring them up to date with the rest of the industry? And that means something a tad more radical than the Chartered Institute of Building’s recent innovation of ditching its white tie and tails dress code.

One tradition that large chunks of the industry seem only too keen to dispense with is building. When I first joined the business in the early days of the last recession, why anyone would want to be a builder was one of life’s mysteries, along with what QSs do and why architects take themselves so seriously.

So often on the menu is the unedifying spectacle of the president armed only with a Paul Shane joke book

Here was a business turning over dollops of cash, but with less to show for it than the interest on a savings account. Just now, though, as the market appears to be healthier than ever, the likes of Amec, Laing, Taylor Woodrow and Mowlem are, one by one, pulling back from traditional contracting. And when they do get their hands dirty, it’s only if they are clasping a negotiated contract.

Of course, the City has sent many of the bigger firms packing down this road. Latham and Egan have inspired many a smaller firm to erase the word “tender” from its vocabulary. But isn’t there a degree of naivety among some of those builders pinning their marketing strategy to the partnering mast? After all, if two parties could live happily ever after, the divorce rate would be lower. What’s more, contractors may fool themselves that negotiation means more profit, but there’s just as much chance of being beaten down on price around a coffee table. Tendering doesn’t have to equal bargain basement.

One builder told me how he turned down the chance to negotiate. “We prefer a nice clean competitive tender. If we negotiate, the client thinks we’re loading the bid; we think the client is being mean.” With competitive tendering, both sides are happy that they’ve struck the right deal. And as another builder said: “I’d charge more on a competitive tender than I would to negotiate.”