Survey finds bosses at Britain's top contractors unimpressed by government bid to improve construction.
Bosses at Britain's top contractors have serious doubts about the success of the government's 1990s efforts to reform construction, a survey reveals this week.

Project manager Drivers Jonas' survey of construction chief executives, revealed exclusively to Building, shows that, in particular the public sector's attempts to be a better client have failed.

Only 33% see any evidence of the state becoming a best-practice client, the key recommendation of Sir Michael Latham's 1994 report Constructing the Team. There are also doubts about attempts to improve tendering practice and the impact of partnering – initiatives that were pioneered in the Latham report.

Among 70 respondents of the 200 contractors surveyed were the heads of top 20 firms Amec, Tarmac, Balfour Beatty, Bovis, Laing, Taylor Woodrow, Costain, Alfred McAlpine, Berkeley Group and Beazer. None has been quoted directly, but responses included:

  • "The report has had no impact whatsoever. It merely made some people stop and think, and then they continued as before."

  • "To date, the Latham report has had very little, if indeed any, effect on the construction industry."

  • "There is a lot of talk about Latham, but little action from government clients."

  • "[The impact of Latham is] largely restricted to some multispend clients. The government tries but does not understand."

  • "Informed clients are moving quickly towards alliances and partnering. Government bodies are reluctant and still worried about accountability."

Drivers Jonas partner Mike Cuthbert said his firm was "amazed" by some of the survey's findings, particularly those relating to tendering practice. He was shocked that 26% of firms do not believe their tenders are evaluated fairly, and said: "I think that figure is frightening given the size of the contractors we are talking about. I don't think corruption is the problem. It's more laziness – clients just go to people they know."

Constructing the Team advised that not more than three firms be invited to tender on a single-stage design-and-build basis. But the survey found that only 18% of bids had three or fewer tenderers.

Cuthbert said: "I'm astonished. Why should anybody bother spending hundreds of thousands on a tender when they've only got a one-in-four chance of winning?"

And despite many contractors' assertions that more than 60% of work is now "partnered", the survey found the average figure is 22%.

But Sir Michael's call for more prefabrication, more standardised products, and for architects to gain more knowledge of components and materials has been heeded. One chief executive said: "The findings of the Latham report have had a profound effect on the construction industry and have taken forward many improvements."

Sir Michael Latham said: "It's true that government has been slow to improve, and that's disappointing. I've always said the impact of my report is better than I had expected but not as good as I'd hoped. But it is quite wrong to say there was no impact at all."

Drivers Jonas has a 50-strong project management division currently handling £200m of work.