Sandi Rhys Jones is clear where the Conservatives went wrong in their dealings with the construction industry. So, with a general election looming and her term in office coming to an end, Nora Redmond asked the president of the Chartered Institute of Building what needs to happen next 

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Sandi Rhys Jones is standing down as president of the CIOB at the end of her one-year term

“I personally have been disappointed so far,” says Sandi Rhys Jones. The general election is now less than two weeks away but, for the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) president, the quality of debate about the built environment – and the key role that it can and should play in the UK’s recovery – has been less than adequate.

Rhys Jones thought the structure of the first Sunak v Starmer debate on ITV was certainly not conducive to eliciting decent responses. She says the 45-second sessions undercut the possibility for any meaningful discussion. 

“I think the important thing has been producing these manifestos, saying something that really recognises where we are, as well as what we’re aiming to do,” Rhys Jones tells Building. “I’m hoping in the more detailed responses to the manifestos and proposals that we will see something that really means something.”

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She considers the election an opportunity for the industry to make the sector’s interests heard. The CIOB, which has 50,000 members in more than 100 countries, has been using its UK regional hubs to connect with local people and better understand what they want for their towns and cities. 

>> Also read: CIOB calls on next government to tackle late payment culture and create green skills fund

>> Also read: Building the modern professional: an interview with CIOB chief Caroline Gumble

For Rhys Jones, it’s about politics with a small “p”. “Think global, act local,” she explains. “We mustn’t get distracted by the grandstanding.”

Does this mean a focus beyond Westminster and the two main parties, and an appreciation that political influence at regional level, through metro mayors, local town and city government, can be undervalued? 

“We must continue engaging at every level,” Rhys Jones responds.

She says she particularly enjoys “watching people coming together across the political divide, to talk about how to help their city”, putting their party affiliations to one side. “That’s how you start making a difference,” she says. 

The CIOB has certainly been engaged across the political spectrum. Rhys Jones attended the big three party conferences last year.

We’ve got big issues facing our industry. And the only way we can resolve them is to work collaboratively

She stresses how important it is for the institute to maintain dialogue with people right across the built environment industry as well as local government officers and politicians. “The ideal point is where you think, I know somebody who understands it, let’s touch base with them’,” she says, noting the CIOB’s collaboration with colleagues at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Royal Town Planning Institute. 

“We’ve got big issues facing our industry. And the only way we can resolve them is to work collaboratively in various areas. Certainly what’s bothered me for many years is the need for the industry to speak with one voice – and speak consistently.”

She believes the CIOB, under her leadership, is starting to do this better. She lists the steps taken in her year in offce to improve collaboration, including sharing platforms with professionals across the sector and organising roundtables with clients, influencers and policymakers. 

“Collaboration with challenge” is Rhys Jones’ personal presidential theme – collaborating within the industry, and not being afraid to challenge the powers that be. But, while the industry has got better at using its coordinated voice, the real problem has been at the other end of the conversation: “Who do we speak to?”

Appointed last summer, she says it has been interesting to observe the government’s “lack of joined-up thinking in the area of policy. Everybody now openly says we’ve had a revolving door of ministers. It’s all very weak.”

This “revolving door” was frustratingly in evidence during the CIOB’s parliamentary reception at Westminster in December. The institute had been having discussions with the housing minister just weeks beforehand. However, “it was a new housing minister who arrived for the reception”.

Lee Rowley became housing minister last November, replacing Rachel Maclean, who was in the job for just over nine months. 

>> Also read: Can the 16th housing minister in 13 years make a difference before the election?

“We’ve got strategic suggestions, we’re agreed on some of the key challenges,” Rhys Jones continues. “But, if we spend time working with – and bringing up to speed in some cases – people who find themselves in a ministerial post with very little understanding of the industry, you spend a lot of time helping to bring them up to speed and explaining the problem. But then, if there is a change within months – which is what we’ve had – then that slows the whole process down.” 

Her frustration is evident and, whether it is the government or opposition, Rhys Jones is clear: the industry needs to be clear who to speak to. 

One way to improve relations between government and industry would be to appoint a figure with real clout who might liaise between the two. So, does the president of the CIOB support the reinstatement of a chief construction adviser, as proposed by the Building the Future Commission

“I thought that was an incredibly encouraging appointment, Rhys Jones says of the civil service position created by ministers in 2008 and initially filled by Paul Morrell. It is “only right” to have a designated person in that role, she says, whose responsibilities could cover infrastructure, housing and transportation. 

”I think chief construction adviser is a helpful title, because construction is a broad church,” she says, adding that of course construction concerns far more than housing. ”It’s more than that, because we now know that there is no point providing housing if there is no infrastructure to provide the transportation or the underpinning elements you need to make appropriate development.”

Construction embraces all of these areas and a construction adviser can work across them.

It is not just the short terms in office for housing ministers that are an issue for Rhys Jones. She thinks there should be a minimum tenure for every ministerial appointment across government, including junior ministers and special advisers. 

How long? A minimum length of one year per position might be appropriate, she says, but the ideal term would be two years. “Then, we will get back some continuity,” she adds.

“In business and industry, you want to have a certain consistency of people, so they are bringing information and knowledge, they are acquiring information and knowledge, and everything is rolling forward,” the says.

At the turn of the century, Rhys Jones was a non-executive director for the Docklands Light Railway and then at a firm where she was charged with looking into the “churn and length of tenure” of the workforce. Continuty is not just an issue affecting the government, it’s a problem for the industry too. 

“It has been frustrating. There has been a lack of consistency, and you need consistency to deliver,” she says.

While she is reluctant to share an official view on behalf of the CIOB about how the government has performed, Rhys Jones lets some personal impressions slip: “I think it’s pretty clear that a lot of things haven’t happened. I think we have big problems to solve, and huge problems in terms of funding and finance.” 

Sandi Rhys Jones CV 

2023-present President, CIOB 

1976-present Owner, Rhys Jones Consultants

2021-23 Senior vice president, CIOB

2002-21 Director, Kennington Place Management 

2017-20 Non executive director, EnviroBuild 

2008-14 Non executive director, EngineeringUK 

2002-12 Deputy chairman, trustees, Royal Marines Museum 

2008-11 Deputy chair of trustees, UK Resource Centre for Women in SET

2002-09 Non executive director, Simons Group Ltd 

1998-00 Non executive director, Docklands Light Railway 

Recent discussions with industry experts have only confirmed the widespread concern about the uncertain direction of travel, which inevitably inhibits funding. With new orders 13% lower than the long-term quarterly average since 2015, the sector is facing significant financial challenges.

Obviously the election means solutions are now “in limbo”, but government efforts to address the big issues affecting the built environment sector have been “lacking” in recent months. 

“As far as the industry is concerned, and as far as we’re concerned at the CIOB, we have the players, we have the knowledge. Now let’s have the environment in order to start moving forward,” says Rhys Jones, adding that she hopes to see some swift and serious action as soon as a new government is formed. 

She thinks any putative housing policy should include balancing renewable energy specialist skills with more traditional skills to prioritise retrofitting and regards “making the best of what we have” as a realistic way to provide new homes.

Yet she also acknowledges there are problems that any new administration will take time to solve. The shortage of workers and the lack of young people joining the sector to plug the skills gap is one obvious issue. So, do we need to improve the image of the industry before seeking increased government investment in skills? 

You want recognition for the value of what you do. You need to see a decent career path. You need to see opportunities and be able to take pride in your job

For Rhys Jones, there is no order of priority. All these things need doing. She quotes a friend who is a professor at the University of Manchester to illustrate this point: “Forget the attitudes, change the damn behaviour’, which is really what we need to be doing.” For construction to become more appealing, for women and young people, for example, steps must be taken to close the skills gap. 

“You want recognition for the value of what you do. You need to see a decent career path. You need to see opportunities and be able to take pride in your job,” says Rhys Jones, who in 1998 received an OBE for her work promoting the role of women in construction. It is a subject that she is still passionate about.

So, value the workforce, provide decent facilities for both men and women and attractive career progression? “Let’s do this, because it’s quite obviously what’s putting women off,” she adds. 

Rhys Jones also proposes the introduction of a construction GCSE to “bring in some of the awareness of what the industry is” and better attract young people. She is highly supportive of apprenticeships as a viable alternative to university courses which too often have little or no exposure to the industry.  

“If there’s no experience of the actual satisfaction of delivering construction, then you’re losing a potential person,” says Rhys Jones of too many students on university courses.

Clearly the CIOB president has plenty of concerns – and clearly she is full of ideas. But, with her one-year term approaching its conclusion, it will be up to her successor, university professor Mike Kagioglou, who takes over at the end of the month, to lead the conversation with the new government straight after 4 July. 


Election focus 

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With the general election fast approaching, the UK is facing some serious problems.

Low growth, flatlining productivity, question marks over net zero funding and capability, skills shortages and a worsening housing crisis all amount to a daunting in-tray for the next government.

This election therefore comes with very high stakes for the built environment and the economy as a whole. 

Building’s coverage aims to help the industry understand the issues and amplify construction’s voice so that the parties hear it loud and clear.