“The image of the builder? It doesn’t disturb me. I’m proud to be a builder,” he says. “There are rogue and incompetent traders who shouldn’t be called builders, but I don’t like the term ‘constructor’ for reputable firms.
I served my apprenticeship as a carpenter and a builder. Being a builder is in my blood.”
The small builders that make up the bulk of the confederation’s membership can be confident that their chairman feels their pain. Benfield is managing director of Coventry-based KB Benfield Group, a £10m-turnover outfit that grapples with all the problems that they do, from tax changes and planning delays to working with awkward first-time clients.
And, while the likes of Tarmac and Amec are getting out of housing – driven by shareholders’ calls for “focus” – KB Benfield still operates as a housebuilder, contractor and woodworking specialist.
Benfield took over the firm, which was formed by his father in 1933, 22 years ago and steered it successfully, if not painlessly, through the economic turbulence of those years. “In 1989, I think I bought the most expensive land in Coventry,” he says.
This experience will have an impact on his approach to working with the Labour Party – not, historically, a friend and ally of the confederation. His initial thoughts are that, as long as a steady workload is maintained, he will be happy with the government.
That does not mean he will have nothing to lobby for. Benfield’s predecessor in the chairman role, Christiani & Nielsen managing director Alan Crane, was hit by a blizzard of activities as Labour got into its post-election stride, so his strategic aim is simply to give direction to the confederation’s activities.
On a tactical level, this means continuing the struggle for planning reform, in particular, voicing the difficulties small firms face in bidding for small sites against volume builders refused permission on bigger ones.
And although Benfield recognises the need to improve the industry’s image, he is apprehensive about the government’s plans to eradicate cowboy builders. The proposed quality mark for reputable builders, he says, will make it harder for them to compete with cowboys. “Consumers tend to use the cheapest builder they can get. To assist the better small firms, we must forcefully put the argument for a cut in VAT on repair and maintenance.”
The confederation believes that by not charging VAT, rogue traders enjoy a 17.5% price advantage, and the cost of achieving the quality mark for better firms could widen the gap further. “How do you measure competence to achieve the quality mark?” asks Benfield. “If the wrong decisions are made, you could drive people out of the construction industry and costs could go up even more.”
Although consumers are in favour of legislation to outlaw cowboys, Benfield would prefer – like the government – an initial voluntary system. He argues that if cowboys already avoid paying VAT, why should they balk at breaking another law that is meant to prevent them trading?
Lunching with the enemy
The new chairman is undaunted at succeeding Crane, an ex-Southwark councillor, and one of the few construction executives with Labour links. “Meeting ministers won’t be a problem,” he predicts. “The strength of this confederation is its breadth of expertise. If there is an issue I’m not familiar with, I wouldn’t dare represent people with more experience of it than me.”
After a tentative start last year, the confederation is to step again into former enemy territory, by holding a lunchtime fringe meeting at this year’s Labour conference in Bournemouth. The meeting, which will probably be held in partnership with consultants’ and specialists’ leaders, will address employment opportunities, best value and the environment. Construction minister Nick Raynsford has pencilled it in his diary.
Small firms, big ambitions
Although confronting issues such as the environment might seem viable only for larger companies, Benfield insists that smaller firms can have equally green credentials – a starting point, he suggests, would be trying to influence architects early in a project’s life.
He also points out that small firms can play their part in other industry-wide issues, such as the private finance initiative and the Egan agenda. He approves of the “bundling” of local authority projects such as schools to form giant building and maintenance operations – as long as this creates opportunities for subcontracted work. “We’ve got to ensure that if the work is bundled at the top, it is unbundled lower down the chain,” he says.
And, with large repeat clients such as BAA, Tesco and McDonald’s chanting the Egan mantra, Benfield believes that here, too, smaller firms can make a difference. It is just as important for them to manage their supply chains as it is for bigger firms, he says.
Benfield takes over as chairman at an important time – he must interview for a £100 000-a-year chief executive at a time when Crane is to carry out a of review the confederation’s performance. In addition, concerns over workload remain and there are rumours (which have been denied) of disagreements with the fiercely independent House Builders’ Federation. Benfield hopes to bring all member bodies together, but points out: “I don’t see it as my job to start new initiatives. I’ve spent all my working life in construction, I just want to emphasise the quality in the industry now.”