If it had been left to the construction industry, let alone to the legal profession, there would have been no Construction Act. Before adjudication, most subcontractors and smaller builders could not afford to go to law or arbitration, for reasons of preserving commercial relations as well as cost. They had to suffer contractual abuse in silence and lose money when they experienced "pay when paid", "pay if paid" or "do not pay at all, but use spurious set-offs to kick the complaint into touch".
That was "justice" before 1998. It was the main reason that my work was commissioned in the first place in 1993, and the downsides were fully described in my interim report Trust and Money. Three construction ministers, Tony Baldry and Robert Jones (both Tories), and Nick Raynsford (Labour), persuaded parliament, clients and the industry that these wrongs must be addressed, decades after they had been exposed by Simon (1944), Banwell (1964) and several other reports. John Prescott and Nick Raynsford commissioned the Egan report, and then gave it muscle by setting up and backing the Construction Best Practice Programme and the Movement for Innovation. The Construction Clients Forum – now succeeded by the Confederation of Construction Clients – also made a difference to clients' attitudes to procurement and best practice. The CCF was set up, with strong Department of the Environment encouragement and involvement, after the publication of Constructing the Team in 1994.
The political process produced the "best value" law for local government. These reforms have had a seismic effect on the construction process, as have public-private partnerships and many more. They all required a great deal of pressure from government. Otherwise, nothing would have happened.
What happens now? It looks like a mess. Green issues and sustainability – key messages of the previous DETR – are now with Margaret Beckett's Department of Food and Rural Affairs. Transport, local government, housing and planning, each with a different minister, are in Stephen Byers' ministry, while the regional co-ordination unit and the government offices for the regions are in the Cabinet Office. Patricia Hewitt's DTI has taken over the sponsorship of the Regional Development Agencies and the construction industry. Architecture is somewhere in the culture ministry. Joining all that government up looks like a real nightmare. We can be fairly sure that when the prime minister took these decisions to restructure the entire machinery of government, the effect on construction had a very low priority in his mind, if indeed it entered it at all.
Of course, the materials and components manufacturers are pleased with the transfer of construction sponsorship to the DTI. Their main interest relates to European standards and related production and competition issues over which they have long dealt direct with the DTI. They regarded the DETR as lukewarm towards them because of its responsibility for planning, sustainability and green issues.
For the rest of us, we have to make the structure work until it all changes again, as it surely will. The construction directorate will need strong political backing. DTI minister Brian Wilson is a forceful politician who has committed himself to taking forward the new strategic forum for the construction industry, chaired by Sir John Egan.
That is good, but the minister is also responsible for energy and for industry generally. The time he can give to construction will be limited. The safety agenda, another key Prescott initiative, has remained with Stephen Byer's department. However, the Egan taskforce on safety is apparently to be subsumed by the stategic forum, also chaired by Egan, which comes under DTI. This sounds a recipe for confusion. Where are Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby now that we need them?