Skills shortages, prefabrication, health and safety, equality.
These four issues are at the heart of the debate about how well the industry uses its physical and human capital. And since all of them feature strongly in the magazine this week, it seemed appropriate to listen to what they tell us about construction's progress towards becoming an efficient, productive and modernised industry.
First, prefabrication. The story here relates to English Partnerships' £60k home competition, and the prototype that has been erected outside the Building Centre in London. This moves the progress chart along quite a few notches. Over the past couple of years there has been a change in the industry's attitude to prefabrication. What this competition has done is to cement the idea that it can provide diversity and quality in the design of low-cost housing. Actually, it's done more than that. It's got housebuilders working with architects and made them think of first-time buyers after spending the past decade concentrating on the second-time ones. There's 1100 of these £60k homes planned on sites provided (at market rates) by EP. Let's hope the economics add up, the planners see the light, and it galvanizes housebuilders into putting up more.
Next it's the turn of health and safety. The progress here over the past five years has been enormous, and although the statistics do not yet fully reflect it, the industry has changed its attitude and priorities. But our story here is not so much about construction, but how it is perceived by the legal system. An investigation by one of our reporters reveals that fines for fatalities caused by negligence are set about 30% lower in construction than they are in other sectors. The unions say this is because courts see the work as inherently risky and therefore regard deaths as somehow to be expected. One might argue that they're all too low anyway - compare the £30,000-40,000 for negligently causing death to the £500,000 fines recently handed out for bid rigging. But these statistics point to an irrational inequality on the part of the courts. It can't be right - and merits further investigation.
And so to skills shortages. The industry has been nudging forward here, thanks to the growing consensus that they can be alleviated by wooing that half of the population that currently shuns construction. But oh dear. At the British Council for Offices' conference in Dublin last week, Ray O'Rourke, one our most respected figures, turned this on its head. He provoked a sharp intake of breath from the audience with his view that a construction site (but not the construction industry) was no place for women, and that the answer to skills shortage was prefabrication. To be fair he was saying what many believe, either because they think the little ladies aren't up to the job, or (in Ray's case) that no caring father would want to subject his daughter to the squalor, disorganisation and danger of a building site. Yes, this is an old-fashioned view - why wouldn't a father feel the same about his sons? - but it's also an unpalatable truth.
The hope must be that progress in the first two issues can promote progress here, too. Improving safety - and increasing fines - will certainly make sites cleaner and better organised. And rather than eliminating the need for women, isn't it possible that prefabrication could make site work less arduous and therefore encourage more to consider a career in the industry? When that happens we really will know we're getting somewhere.
Denise Chevin, editor