Both the ONS and Ucatt are coming under fire from industry leaders and members this week
It’s unlikely that the Office for National Statistic mandarins will have heard Kier’s Paul Sheffield call their numbers a load of “baloney”, but it seems enough analysts, economists and business chiefs have got to them to prompt a review of their methodologies. Should you believe their latest economic indicators last week, the UK economy has grown while construction shrank by almost 5% for the first slug of the year, the biggest single drop of any sector. The Kier chief executive is not the only sceptic: these numbers simply do not add up. How, with all the disruption from the December snow, can output have been reported as plummeting further below December levels in January? And does - as Building’s online economic blogger Brian Green points out - anyone at the ONS actually understand the relationship between construction orders and output?
Do they really think that results and forecasts based on a couple of dodgy months of data can ever be realistic?
It so happens that sentiment has recently been more positive about an industry that had been stuck in the doldrums. London is back, the government has, at last, provided some certainty over public sector spending despite its tough messages and the private sector is on the brink of restoring a sense of confidence. It’s rare that construction, as a sector, receives such attention from the national media. The fragmented nature of its supply chain and its diverse workload mean it is often overshadowed by other high-profile fields such as the media, oil or manufacturing. Although this is just a blip in reporting, it will have been misinterpreted and distorted by the mainstream press, undermining the more general story of recovery in the industry and its attempts to return to growth. At best, in this case the ONS has simply made an error with its numbers. And, at worst, these figures reveal a lack of understanding of construction economics within Whitehall.
An unhappy union
The once powerful Ucatt union, under the stewardship of the late George Brumwell, was at the forefront of industry change. People ignored the movement, and its views, at their peril. From pay, training, safety, dispute resolution and bogus self-employment to the use of illegal foreign workers, the union always took a view and fought for transparency. Now, with work so scarce, all of these issues have slipped off the top of the agenda. If you’re the boss of a leading construction union, you must react to social, economic and political change and respond to the needs of employers and their employees by leading on a new set of campaigning issues. But how can Ucatt, the only dedicated construction union, achieve any of this while being embroiled in an embarrassing and prolonged leadership election dispute? Companies rarely need the services of unions these days, but when they do they want someone sensible they can work with. The risk for Ucatt, or any union come to that, is that it finds itself not only absent from the top table at the TUC but also from the boardrooms of sizeable businesses and the corridors of Whitehall. That would be a real shame.
Tom Broughton is brand director of Building