The Strategic Forum’s new structure has trimmed down its unwieldy membership, but some of the changes could damage its status

Since my column on 25 November last year, the Strategic Forum for Construction has completed its rethink and the new structure came into effect earlier this month. Some of the changes are perfectly sensible; others are more controversial.

First, the wise changes. The forum’s previous membership, like Topsy, just growed. As well as the representative organisations of the industry and clients, it included the Office of Government Commerce, the Health and Safety Executive, Constructing Excellence and the DTI. I was also a member of it, representing skills and training in my CITB-ConstructionSkills capacity.

The new structure will be the clients’ group, the Construction Confederation, the Construction Industry Council, the Construction Products Associations, a joint group of two specialist umbrella bodies and the trade unions. Most of the work will be done by subgroups, which will also contain other organisations, if that is appropriate for their terms of reference.

I have no problem with that principle. The forum is reverting to an organisation more like the former Construction Industry Board. I had always seen CITB-ConstructionSkills and Constructing Excellence as delivery mechanisms for the forum. It is right that the decision-makers should be the industry leaders, but CITB-ConstructionSkills, whether in its training and levy/grant role or as part of the sector skills council ConstructionSkills, will continue to support the forum in delivering education and skills targets. The forum’s targets are effectively the same as ConstructionSkills’ own, as set out in the sector skills agreement.

There are, however, some concerns about the new structure. The former CIB had the then Department of the Environment, the industry regulator and sponsor, as an integral member. Under the new structure, the DTI will be invited as an observer to the forum’s three meetings a year. That is a mistake.

The forum will come to be seen by ministers as a lobbying body, bringing industry concerns to the government, rather than as a joint organisation with government. It will become like the old Group of Eight 25 years ago, which was frozen out by Margaret Thatcher and treated by her and her ministers as a hostile body, rather than a partner in advancing best practice.

The forum will come to be seen by ministers as a lobbying body, rather than as a joint organisation

There are two other concerns on membership.

The first is the absence of the Federation of Master Builders, which is not a member of the Construction Confederation but represents thousands of smaller firms. When the CIB existed, main contractors were represented by the (now defunct) Construction Industry Employers Council, of which the FMB was part. Although many small firms belong to federations in the Construction Confederation, the absence of the FMB is unfortunate. There will also be dismay that the National Specialist Contractors Council and the Specialist Engineering Contractors Group are offered only one joint representative. Although they were previously one organisation known as the Constructors Liaison Group, that broke up a few years ago and is unlikely to be revived.

Related to that issue is the method of chairing the forum. It will have a revolving chairmanship of the CIC, the Construction Confederation and the CPA on a yearly basis. The current president or chairman of one of the bodies will also chair the forum. The specialist contractors are incensed that they are not included in that arrangement, and feel marginalised as a result. I doubt if they will let that situation pass without strong protests.

I am also doubtful whether the future chairman should be an industry representative. Peter Rogers has been an excellent chairman, with his role as a major client being particularly significant. It would have been much better if the new chairman had also been a major client or a serious figure from outside the industry, such as Sir John Egan. However eminent the contractor, consultant or manufacturer who becomes chairman, they will not be a client. I fear that such leadership will be seen as further evidence that the forum is now an industry lobbying group. I hope I will be wrong and I wish the new arrangements well, despite my concerns.