A study of the construction industries of 13 European countries places the UK near the bottom of the efficiency league. Bernard Williams explains why and offers some solutions

At consultant Bernard Williams Associates, we have just published a report for the European commission comparing construction efficiency in 13 European countries.

The map attached below shows the results: each country’s efficiency in the use of resources and labour (see "Index of efficiency in the use of resources and labour"). The UK and Ireland are the least efficient, which should not surprise anyone who has been a regular reader of Building and of industry reports in the past 20 years.

So what is the point of harping on about research projects gathering dust on bookshelves? Well, that’s just it: in the UK, we acknowledge their existence, resolve to do something about it – and then carry on exactly as before.

Latham and Egan, of course, set targets. The Constructing Excellence initiative has made a good start by encouraging firms to measure their performance and then compare it with a benchmark. This benchmark could be drawn from the firm’s UK construction peer group, which would at least help us to get our act together in data terms, but we should really be looking at how the best companies in the world do business.

Our study did draw some optimistic conclusions about the differences between the best and worst performers among the 13 countries we looked at, as well the reasons for their rankings.

The first thing that jumped out of the data was that all the best performers had a seriously industrialised approach to construction. Contractors in Belgium, Holland and Scandinavia generally had much more influence over how buildings were designed and specified than those in the UK, Ireland, Spain, France and Italy. Firms in these countries usually had to build what was given to them by the architect – bricks, mortar, insitu concrete, wet plaster, bespoke services, the lot.

Contractors in Belgium, Holland and Scandinavia have much more influence over how buildings are designed and specified than those in the UK

The second finding was that, by and large, the industrialised industries paid their site workers higher wages than the traditional industries. UK labour rates were rock-bottom, but British prices were as high as or higher than the rest.

Incidentally, Belgium performed excellently on bespoke buildings and it is the only one of the 13 that offers total project insurance – that is where all parties in a project take a stake in an insurance policy so that all have a vested interest in making a project work and are protected if things go wrong. This is certainly something the other countries should take a closer look at.

But why has the UK fallen behind? We flirted with industrialised building in the 1960s and 1970s but the effects of the boom-and-bust cycle on investment in manufacturing plant, plus a series of high-profile system-building failures meant industrialisation went on the back burner. Meanwhile, the Belgians, Dutch, Danes and Finns got on with the job – and got much better at it.

So in 2006, the UK is about 30% less efficient than the best-performing countries in the study and in desperate need of 380,000 extra workers to meet the mega-boom about to hit us. Yet if we were among the most efficient in Europe, we probably would not need them.

Maybe the Continentals will come over here to show us how to do it. But they can’t bring their massive factories with them and they would still need to rely heavily on the UK’s workforce to put up buildings using unfamiliar procedures and processes.

Let’s not ignore the statistics this time. We must stop in our tracks and, with all the government help we can muster, take a giant step sideways and forwards.