Anybody who’s had the experience of persuading a utility company’s call centre to deal with a bill that seems to have acquired an extra couple of noughts will empathise with the National Federation of Builders’ members.

When the federation asked them if they’d had problems getting a utility connection, it emerged that one in three construction projects were delayed by the lack of gas, water or electricity.

The NFB talks of “unbelievable stories from hell”. The chief complaints are that firms have to deal with poor quality call centre staff, that quotes for work are issued late and installation may not happen until two months after a project has been handed over, leaving contractors with irate clients and a problem they can do little about. Then there’s the question of prices, which are so high that contractors suspect that they’re being asked to pay the whole cost of installing infrastructure that the utility will subsequently profit from.

To their credit, some utilities companies admit there is a problem with their customer care. But this could be more to do with the threat of being named and shamed by the state regulator rather than because they have a culture of striving for high-quality performance. The problem would be serious at any time. But as we’re about to embark on the largest housebuilding programme in a generation and also construct the Olympics, the highest profile construction programme in decades, an innovative approach from the utilities sector is needed more than ever.

One way to improve could be to follow the example of EDF Energy, which seems to understand what the construction sector really wants – certainty. By creating a service called “principal account liaisons” – that is, single points of contact for contractors undertaking large projects – EDF has relieved its customers of the tedious requirement of speaking to a machine for 10 minutes before they have a chance to get really angry with a human being. The utilities sector has stood up and admitted its problems, and is looking to improve: let’s help it to find the right solutions.

Tightening the rules

The government has revealed it won’t be making an announcement on the final contents of Part L this week. Rather, it will make an announcement “in the summer”. This means that the government’s original plan to introduce the changes on 1 January 2006 will not be feasible. So the government is now saying Part L won’t be introduced until April 2006 – which won’t be welcome news to some. The makers of energy efficiency products will be particularly unhappy: they’ve spent millions getting their kit ready for manufacture and now they won’t see any return on their investment until the middle of next year. It also means that the government won’t meet its targets for reducing carbon emissions in its energy white paper, which required reductions by the end of 2005. It’s high time the ODPM got its house in order.