A recent report shows that clients are happier with the industry than they were in the mid-1990s. But this may merely reflects easier times, rather than better working practices.
What lessons should the contracting industry learn from the Construction Industry Board/Building report, The Improving Performance of the UK Construction Industry? Clients were asked to rate the industry: “overall satisfaction” is up; “ability to keep to the price quoted” is up; “resolution of defects” is up; and “trust and confidence” is up. “The quality of the end result” was marginally improved, and only “ability to keep to time” dropped between 1997 and 1999. One in seven clients now gives its contractor a “perfect” 10 out of 10.

The report concludes: “Clearly, the tide has turned and the industry is on the road to continuous improvement.” It is at least refreshing to read some good news about the performance of the industry.

Those involved in consultation on the Construction Act and the accompanying Scheme for Construction Contracts may have found the process rather divisive. Many reports on the industry published in the mid-1990s were inordinately critical of it. Those reflecting the interests of the major clients demanded wholesale change. The effect on the morale of the industry was destructive. It was time for a pat on the back.

But should we not look at the data a little more carefully? The survey was among the first of its kind and there is no comparable data for satisfaction levels in the mid to late 1980s. There is, however, anecdotal evidence that practices and processes within the industry were improving. Major city developments regularly smashed previous records. Prefabrication was reducing costs. Construction management was reforming payment practices and delivering faster times, lower costs and better quality.

This had all changed by the middle of the 1990s recession. There seemed to be no good news around. The usual volumes of claims documents were delivered to clients’ offices and the critical reports to which I referred above ensued.

Could it not be that these latest upbeat results are simply the result of a busier and more confident industry? Is the blip in the results on “ability to keep to time” symptomatic of the fact that resources are stretched as workload increases, resulting in delays in completion? If CIB/Building produces another report in four or five years, will we find ourselves back into a cycle of dissatisfaction again? Or, this time round, is the industry about to make the radical changes Sir John Egan demands?