A strategy for construction?

Published:  29 April, 2016

Is the Government Construction Strategy just more of the same?

The government construction strategy (GCS) 2016 to 2020 emerged in March. I am sure a large number of MBS readers have spent far longer in the construction industry than me, but at first glance, the content and style of this publication look very familiar; as if I've been reading something like this every few years for the past fifteen years.  If I were coming the bookshelves for a holiday read, I'd probably put this one back on the grounds that it's not exactly a gripping page-turner.

You've only got to look at the opening pages and tick off what we've all read so many times before: construction a major part of the economy (tick); construction a highly fragmented industry (tick); public sector its biggest customer (tick). Stop me if you've heard it before.

The problem I have with document is that it offers some big goals, with not much detail on how they will be achieved. For example, in his foreword Lord Bridges expresses a desire to 'help SME's bid for contracts...". Yet we are still an industry beset by retentions. Government may claim to be using project bank accounts, but I am afraid that doesn't seem to be solving the problem. The term 'retentions' doesn't appear in the 19-page document.

Not all SMEs can win work on government projects all the time. Too many of them are still suffering serious cash flow issues and facing bankruptcy because of retentions. GCS 2016-20 also mentions training as a priority. Again, retentions in the construction industry mean that money is too tight to invest in apprenticeships and training. 

One particularly ominous refrain is that 'we need to ensure the taxpayers' money is spent carefully'. As a taxpayer, I'm all for this (pamphlet on European Union membership, anyone?). But we all know what that means for construction - a continued focus on the capital costs of projects. What gets measured is what gets done, so if the goal is to cut costs then that's always going to fall on capital costs; not operational.

There is mention of sustainability, of course, in the GCS, and also a commitment to keeping Soft Landings in play. But there isn't any clear direction on how we switch to whole-life costing of buildings.

Perhaps the government is gradually getting better at being a customer of the construction sector - the figures in this GCS say that there were savings of £3 billion over 2011 to 2015. But I think it also needs to become better at putting a strategy together. Too often I have heard tales from technical people in our sector who have been at meetings with construction ministers or their staff who have startlingly little knowledge of the industry. And once they do learn something, they're off in another department to move up the career ladder.  How can people who don't really understand our sector, or have time to learn about it, provide a vision of its future and a roadmap for getting there?

If the construction industry can do anything for itself, then educating clients (government included) seems to be a good first step. Perhaps someone out there needs to write a 'Construction Industry Strategy for Construction'. Now that really would be something to read.

Karen Fletcher is Director of Keystone Communications. 

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