Wouldn’t it be great if there was an organisation that spoke for the whole of the construction industry instead of just individual professions? Oh wait, there is …
Any level-headed visitor from Mars to our tiny island would surely know that we are crackers when they looked at the organisation of our construction industry. Fragmented does not even begin to describe it. We have a different institute or trade body for about every third person in the business. Architects, technicians, interior designers, surveyors, project managers, landscape architects, manufacturers, engineers of all sorts, and builders of this, that and the other variety all have their own, different representative organisation. At most we need four institutes: management, design, cost, construction. It’s a nightmare and a recipe for disagreement. So thought Michael Heseltine when he was at the environment department and he came out with this edict to the construction industry: “If you want to talk to government, get yourself together.” Thus with a bit of leadership from Ted Happold and others like Maxwell Hutchinson, in 1988 the Construction Industry Council (CIC) was born, to represent everyone.
CIC was and is a brilliant idea and just about everyone is on board - contractors and manufacturers aside who still have separate umbrella bodies. It has 31 institutional members (QED my claim about fragmentation) including full-blooded support from the RICS.
We need to compete as a destination of choice for international businesses run by discerning, well-educated managers who don’t want to live in a second-class country with second-class facilities
When I was president of the RIBA I thought my most important role was representing architects’ issues to the government, but I became acutely aware that a single voice is not that powerful as it is not heard as being representative. So I was delighted to be elected last month as CIC’s deputy chair and chair elect, as I know it is quietly effective.
Perhaps it’s too “quietly effective”. Did you know that CIC has run the strategic forum, the interface with government, for most of the last 10 years? Or that it gives day-to-day support to Paul Morrell, the government’s chief construction adviser? Or that, with the CITB, it formed ConstructionSkills? Or that it runs the 2050 group of influential young professionals? Or what about the new BIM Strategy Group to drive progress on how we truly modernise the design and construction of buildings? How about CIC’s staples concerning registering approved inspectors, adjudicators, monitoring building control standards, safety, design quality indicators and common contracts? I thought not.
It’s a critical time. The government is trying to drive the UK out of recession via an austerity campaign. UK construction, including infrastructure, starts on the back foot as it is about 20% more expensive than our EU rivals - never mind the US or the Far East. It’s a global economy and UK construction costs are a drag on our competitiveness. Neither Building Schools for the Future nor the private finance initiative have been seen to deliver the goods. But what’s the alternative? Where is the Big Idea that will take us to low cost, low carbon, high-speed and high-quality construction? Well, one idea is to skip the high-quality bit on the premise that the UK can’t afford it, and go for the rest. A contractor-led, price-driven industry - job done. I don’t think that’s good enough; the UK deserves - and more to the point needs - better. We need to compete as a destination of choice for international businesses run by discerning, well-educated managers who don’t want to live in a second-class country with second-class facilities.
The answer is more sophisticated. It’s about clear objectives, not muddled thinking. It’s about ambitious targets, not easy wins. It’s about integration of ideas and teams, if not firms. Yes, it’s about exploiting BIM (although most people have no idea what that means); it could lead to radical changes to how we do everything. It’s about off-site manufacture and standardisation. It’s about de-layering, and lean everything. It’s about low-cost carbon, which is a huge commercial opportunity. To achieve this sophisticated modern industry, it’s going to need vision and leadership - that’s Paul Morrell’s job. It will also require persuasion, communication and co-operation throughout the entire industry - and that’s the CIC’s job.
Jack Pringle is a partner in Pringle Brandon