Slough Estates' Rimmer and Railtrack's Murray slate contractors for not understanding process.
Two top clients last week launched a swingeing attack on the industry at a Building Research Establishment conference on partnering.

Bernard Rimmer, general manager of construction at Slough Estates, and Simon Murray, director of major projects at Railtrack, criticised the industry for failing to get to grips with partnering.

The two were speakers at a conference attended by more than 200 contractors and consultants, which was held to mark the second anniversary of the BRE's privatisation.

Rimmer said: "A lot of the major contractors don't understand their supply chain. They don't know who's doing the work or who's coming on to their jobs." He added: "A number of major trade contractors' perception of partnering is that if things suddenly go wrong, the client will lift his cheque book. That's not the way we do it." Rimmer also slated architects for holding up the partnering process: "Faster delivery [of schemes] is a problem. Designers are not coping with the change in timescale." He said there had been a shift in emphasis in partnering since this time last year: "Then, we were very much dealing with the top end of partnering and main contractors. Now, we're talking to manufacturers more than anyone else in the construction process and we know our supply chain vastly more than a year ago." Railtrack's Murray said: "Partnering is seen as a cuddly process about being nice to each other instead of about openness, competence and consistency.

"There's a real risk of missing the central point of partnering. It's not an end in itself, it's about finding different ways of doing business." Murray also criticised the lack of leadership in the industry, which he claimed was obsessed with talking about management and with forms of contract. "It's the industry's greatest weakness," he said.

Reacting to the speeches, Construction Industry Council chief executive Graham Watts said the notion that contractors don't know what's going on with their supply chains had been demonstrated by Building's recent exposé of underpaid Kosovars working on sites in London (23 April).

A lot of major contractors don't know who's doing the work or who's coming on to their jobs

Bernard Rimmner

"I think some people do see partnering as a cuddly mutual experience but others are more hardnosed about it and you'll find they're using complex bespoke contracts to back up these partnering arrangements. If things go wrong, it will be just as adversarial," he said.

Paul Hodgkinson, chairman and chief executive of contractor Simons, said: "It's too easy to be complacent and say we're trying. Looking at the big picture, Bernard Rimmer was right, but everybody gets very defensive." Hodgkinson said he thought getting the industry to adopt and adapt to partnering was a 20-year, rather than a two-year project.

James Burland, director of architect Arup Associates, reacted angrily to Rimmer's "sweeping" criticism of architects.

Burland said: "I don't know any architects who aren't responsive to change. I think it's developers who need to look at new ways of doing things." However, Building Design Partnership chairman Richard Saxon agreed with Rimmer on the whole, and said the criticism did not surprise him.

"The response to Egan varies from the enlightened to the reactionary. 'Over my dead body' is how a lot of architects view being part of the supply chain," he said.