Our first Building the Future Think Tank regional roundtable for 2024 was held in Cambridge last month, with industry experts coming together to brainstorm ways to meet the productivity challenge in the East of England. Jordan Marshall reports

Building the Future Think Tank

“We don’t plan projects properly. We use schedules as contracts, and as weapons. Whether it is for tier ones, tier twos or anyone else on site,” said Shaun Pidcock, programme director on the Lower Thames Crossing. 

“This needs to change by really understanding what’s actually happening on site. We need to go more digital and data focused. We need to drive out waste.”

Pidcock was speaking at the Building the Future Think Tank’s first regional roundtable for 2024, which took place last month and focused on addressing the construction sector’s productivity challenges, with a particular focus on the East of England.

From the start of  last year, the Building the Future Commission was working to discover solutions and initiatives to improve the built environment. The commission published its final report earlier this year, but it has subsequently transitioned into the Building the Future Think Tank.


Source: shutterstock.com

The first regional roundtable saw Building gather a group of experts in Cambridge, before the think tank’s roadshow heads to the North-east, the North-west, the Midlands and Wales later this year.

As part of the think tank’s fact-finding work, and in partnership with Constructing Excellence and supported by national sponsors Fenwick Elliott, Gleeds and RLB, we will this year once again be travelling around the country convening high-level roundtable discussions with experts in different regions to ensure that the commission hears from all corners of the UK.

The first of these, held last month, saw Building gather a group of experts who each have links to the East of England, before the think tank’s roadshow heads to the North-east, the North-west, the Midlands and Wales later this year.

This first stop of the year, in Cambridge, chaired by Building’s head of content Carl Brown, was all about what can be done to boost construction productivity in the region.

Around the table

Chair: Carl Brown, head of content, Building

Peter Buist, regional partner, Purcell

Christopher Chappell, operations director – construction, Mace 

Martin Hall, regional director, Gleeds 

Emma Maltby, technical director, Arcadis 

Alison Nicholl, head, Constructing Excellence 

Shaun Pidcock, programme director, Lower Thames Crossing

Simon Tolson, senior partner, Fenwick Elliott 

Wai Yuk Lau, associate, AKT II 

Gavin White, director, Ramboll

Structural barriers

Emma Maltby, technical director at Arcadis, said there are structural barriers limiting the sector’s ability to improve its productivity. “As an example, the push for the use of MMC, prefabrication and higher recycled content faces a number of constraints in terms of capacity. Felixstowe is at capacity, a lot of rail freight is at capacity, and we are saying transport can’t be by road. That’s a definite barrier.”

Peter Buist, Eastern regional partner at Purcell, also flagged issues around procurement and risk-sharing as a hurdle for productivity. He considers this particularly the case in the ever-growing retrofit and refurbishment sector, saying that in “retrofit, despite the inherent sustainability benefits that it delivers, there is the undeniable challenges that at stage three or four cost evaluation is almost double the new-build costs”. He said part of this is because contractors are being expected to pick up the added risk, meaning more collaborative methods of procurement could see these projects funded and delivered faster.

Cam photo 1

Source: Cameo Photography Ltd

Alison Nicholl, head of Constructing Excellence, added to the procurement discussion by pointing out there are examples of good procurement boosting productivity. “You just need to look at the NHS and Procure23 when it comes to advocating for productivity and early contractor involvement. There are projects that were able to deliver the equivalent of 1,600 operations early thanks to the principles outlined in the procurement process used. That’s a real tangible example of what higher productivity can mean.” 

Cultural change

Many of the panellists said that to improve productivity it is imperative relationships within the sector are improved, with Pidcock adding that days can be lost purely due to a lack of communication, with time gains made on programmes often not being passed on. “If you have a five-day activity that takes three days, we often don’t start the next stage at day four; we are still waiting until day six as firms involved are not prepared for it,” he said. “If there was more of a culture around having fact-based discussions rather than emotional ones, you could build up time buffers for when you need them further down the pipeline.”

Christopher Chappell, operations director for construction at Mace, said this comes back to the fact that many contractors, whether they be tier ones, tier twos or those further down the supply chain, are afraid to communicate when they anticipate being ahead of the programme. “Fear of missing a timeline is a limitation,” he said. “I’d love to be in a place where we can share the best and everyone can share the benefits, but there is a fear of it being used against you if you miss.”

all photo

Top: Wai Yuk Lau, associate at AKT II; Peter Buist, regional partner at Purcell; and Gavin White, director at Ramboll

Middle: Carl Brown, head of content at Assemble Media Group; Emma Maltby, technical director of Arcadis; Simon Tolson, senior partner at Fenwick Elliott; and Martin Hall, regional director of Gleeds

Bottom: Shaun Pidcock, programme director for the Lower Thames Crossing; Christopher Chappell, operations director for construction at Mace; and Alison Nicholl, head of Constructing Excellence

On this point, Maltby said she considered the most successful project she has been involved with from a collaboration perspective to be the 2012 Olympics, due in part to the dead stop which forced everyone to work openly and together.

Simon Tolson, senior partner at Fenwick Elliott, added: “For the small amount of disputes there were [on the Olympic projects], there was enough money that was chucked in by government to solve a lot of those problems. But this also did facilitate negotiation, and collaborative working on the human resourcing side, as there was a much more embraced view of ‘this is a common project we’ve got to deliver’.” He said this shows that more collaborative contracting is the way forward – but also demonstrates the importance of projects being properly funded.

For his part, Martin Hall, regional partner at Gleeds, said businesses and the industry as a whole need to look at how best to utilise our limited resources. “There are a number of different issues in getting staff to deliver, and we need productivity up. The question is: how do we get the best out of our staff? For me, the best way to maximise the productivity of staff is to find graduates or apprentices and train them up ourselves. That is the best way of ensuring skillsets.” 

Upcoming Building the Future Commission events

18 June: Building the Future Think Tank North-east roundtable (invite only)

25 June: Building the Future Think Tank North-west roundtablee (invite only)

18 September: Building the Future Conference (open)

26 September: Building the Future Think Tank Midlands roundtable (invite only)

23 October: Building the Future Think Tank Wales roundtable (invite only)

The people aspect

“For me, addressing productivity is around people. Construction is all about people and relationships, whether that’s partnerships with clients, contractors or other consultants,” said Gavin White, director at Ramboll. “Problems with communication and risk management are barriers to productivity, which means we need to remove the adversarial nature of communications that often exists.” 

Continuing on the importance of how maximising the output of the people within construction is integral, White said that when considering innovative approaches, such as offsite manufacturing, it is important to think about using consolidation centres. “This needs big client involvement, but it will drive skills,” said White. “If we try and upskill in the East of England just for one project, you waste the skillset. If we have a consolidation centre that can be used nationwide, it ends up wholly upskilling the whole of the UK.”


Wai Yuk Lau, associate at AKT II, agreed on this point, equating the opportunities such consolidation areas could bring the sector to the opportunities Silicone Valley provides the technology sector in the US. “That will also attract more people into the industry, as they will see the parts of the sector that are not about working with a trowel and laying bricks,” he said. “They will be excited by the technology and the new innovative opportunities on offer.”

Recommendations for the next government to boost productivity

Confirmed and committed pipelines of work

“We need to be sure we are ensuring to continue to push,” said Alison Nicholl, head of Constructing Excellence. “We need consistency in the sector, as there are great things we are working on but it is hard to carry them from project to project when there is a lack of certainty. We need to stop making long-term strategic decisions based on short-term electoral cycles.” 

Efficient design and standardisation in construction

A number of participants discussed the need for efficient design and standardisation of projects, and more consistent use of digital tools and and data. There was a general consensus that consistency and standardisation are key to the successful implementation of new technologies and infrastructure projects. There were several suggestions that government support for major public projects and clients is needed to ensure learnings from one scheme are transferred on to the next.

Planning system reform is needed

Arcadis technical director Emma Maltby said planning can be a key productivity barrier and there is a lack of government support for getting planning approval, particularly in areas such as renewable energies. “We need to reduce red tape and the support isn’t there currently,” she said. “The government needs to be helping with planning for things like on-shore wind farms.”

Re-evaluate public-private partnership models and financing 

A number of the members of the panel said there was definitely value in the government revisiting and reviewing the use of public-private funding models, in a way that has not been popular since the collapse of Carillion. “I think there’s a place for it, where appropriate,” said Shaun Pidcock, programme director for the Lower Thames Crossing. “The expertise from the UK on these sorts of models has been exported and is being used internationally, so we should look at if there is an appropriate way to again use them here.”

What the sector in the East of England wants

As the roundtable approached its end after an hour and a half of vigorous debate, the panel were asked to look ahead to the upcoming general election and to come up with the policies they would like to see introduced to boost productivity.

Responses (see panel above) included suggestions on improved visibility of pipeline, more efficient design and standardisation, and a re-evaluation of public-private partnership models of financing.


The key takeaways for the think tank when considering productivity in the East of England were on the significance of planning reform, the importance of maximising the skillsets of individuals within the sector, and improving relationships across the supply chain.

The Building the Future Think Tank


Building the Future Think Tank


The Building the Future Commission’s work will continue into 2024. Having embarked on this enormously ambitious project last year, covering eight very broad areas, we realise the current challenges facing construction as a sector and the wider built environment need ongoing research.

This is why this year we are setting up our own editorial research hub, known as The Building the Future Think Tank, which will be dedicated to producing more in-depth research and reports on behalf of the industry.

We plan to focus the think tank’s programme for 2024 on five key areas, although we are taking soundings from the industry and the list could expand to cover more topics. The themes identified so far are: AI and digital construction, implementing net zero, workplace and productivity, building safety, and people and skills.

We’d like to thank our national sponsors Fenwick Elliott, Gleeds and RLB for their ongoing support.