The last person who tried to make a success of representing clients' interests in construction was Carillion starlet Zara Lamont, who oversaw the Confederation of Construction Clients more than two years ago. And even her high-profile and enthusiastic stewardship could not prevent the confederation's long, agonising death as its membership waned and its bank account drained away.
"I'm fully aware of the legacy the previous client body has left," says Farrant, 43, who is also chief executive of Barking and Dagenham council. "But I am determined to turn it around."
As he wanders around the Barking and Dagenham civic centre while being snapped by Building's photographer, Farrant takes the time to charm tea ladies and an elderly, overenthusiastic lady wearing mayoral chains. His aura is summed up by one leading industry figure, who describes him as someone who somehow finds himself in positions of power without having tried to get there. "He's a bit like the cool teacher in the school – someone who's in a position of authority but pokes fun at you without you knowing it. He does it with a remarkable dry wit."
In Farrant's current position of power, his strategy is to make the CCG into an all-encompassing representative body for a broad range of companies and organisations.
"I suppose the plan is to attract companies and construction clients that do not necessarily read Building magazine or know anything about the construction industry," he says with a mischievous smile. "I want to be able to give good quality, independent advice to the one-off construction clients as well as the mainstream repeat clients, and we need to lead by example."
Farrant was headhunted by Chris Morley, who established the CCG during a secondment from his post as construction director at the British Property Federation. Farrant was selected as chairman because of his experience as a construction client – he currently oversees £100m a year of construction spending at Barking and Dagenham, including the high-profile Barking Reach housing scheme.
However, it is widely known Farrant was not the first choice for the job. A number of private sector property developers were approached before, and according to one prominent property figure, each turned it down on the grounds that it was the "construction industry equivalent to being an undertaker".
That said, Morley and the BPF have given Farrant a running start. A vast array of government figures and industry bodies have already been enlisted to join and support the CCG, ranging from construction minister Nigel Griffiths and the DTI to the Office of Government Commerce and the Local Government Association. Farrant's task is to act as figurehead, "take the support base forward" (that is, attract more members) and make the body cost-efficient.
He’s a bit like the cool teacher in the school – someone who’s in a position of authority but pokes fun at you
Farrant says he his first job is to learn more about the issues within the industry. He says he has all the industry expertise he needs within the group, except that of the legal profession. "Lawyers are involved in every contract, so it is only right that I should bring some legal expertise on board," he says, adding that he will probably approach a construction law body in the near future.
He is keen to give clients a "much bigger role" in safety within the construction industry; he says clients should consider contractors' safety records when awarding contracts, as well as their take up of CSCS cards. He is sketchy on the specifics, but he plans to discuss these with union officials in the near future.
Farrant believes his first steps towards making a difference is in the field that he knows the best – the public sector. He wants to begin influencing the host of regional procurement centres of excellence that are to be set up by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister within the next few weeks. "I want to make sure that local authorities get the best client advice and begin to realise that they can save money by adopting different partnering approaches to the procurement of construction," he says (at the end of a long spiel about how he hates "public sector bureaucracy" and "council management-speak").
Cutting to the chase, Farrant eventually tackles the issue of how a client body under his leadership is going to succeed where Lamont's Confederation of Construction Clients did not. And he sets out how the CCG has developed a business plan and a new guidance Charter for clients to refer to when procuring work. He also details how the first few "outputs" from the CCG will be job-specific, led and funded on a "project by project" basis. What these projects are going to be however, is as yet unclear.
Farrant's all-important financial plan is to make the CCG into a self-funding body. "We have a big-picture plan of trying to charge for a quality service within five years." Farrant hopes eventually to provide a one-stop shop where clients can buy independent advice.
Personal effectsWhat’s on your CV? I’ve been chief executive of Barking and Dagenham council since May 2000. Before that I was director of housing at Birmingham council. I am also managing director of the East London Waste Authority and chair of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives.
Where did you study? Thames Polytechnic, now known as the University of Greenwich. I am qualified as an environment health officer.
Who’s who in you family? I am married and have three girls – twins aged six and a nine-year-old.
What is your favourite television show? I don’t get time to watch television with my family. But let’s just say “light entertainment”.
Favourite football team? Er, I’ve taken my girls to West Ham a couple of times …
Where do you live? I commute to Barking and Dagenham from Bishop’s Stortford.