Building a platform for change in construction

5 min read

So many things in construction have changed in the four decades I have been working in the industry. On areas like health and safety, technology, manufacturing, wellbeing, and diversity, we have seen significant change that has improved performance, reliability and saved countless lives. 

However, in areas like collaboration and cross-sector working, the industry has been fragmented and slow to improve. 

It is only recently that this has begun to change. Four years ago, we came together as an industry to form Build UK with the intention to create a single collective voice for the entire sector; from clients/ institutions to contractors and trades/suppliers. 

Since 2017 I have been fortunate to serve as Chair for Build UK, overseeing a fantastic programme of engagement and policy work. I’ve been proud to support Suzannah Nichol and the Build UK team having worked with others in the industry to devise new solutions and approaches to problems that have hampered progress for years. 

The successes we’ve seen at Build UK – on areas like pre-qualification, payment performance and contract conditions– have shown that when we work together we can build a better industry for everyone. 

On payment performance, for example, Build UK has made a tangible impact, reducing payment times, improving operating conditions for suppliers and helping to ensure that our industry is more resilient. Our benchmarking efforts have shown that average payment times across the main contractors have dropped from 45 to 40 days in the year to July 2019. Construction is still the only sector that is benchmarking performance in this way and the increased transparency is starting to change the industry’s culture and drive improved practices.

Across the construction industry, more than 180,000 specialist contractors produce over two million pieces of paper every year for more than 5,000 contractors, a huge barrier to improving productivity. To address pre-qualification, we’ve worked with CECA and stakeholders from across the sector to roll out the first phase of a reformed pre-qualification system. This is the first step towards a less complex and repetitive system that will allow the whole sector to become more efficient. 

On risk transfer and contract conditions, the work we’ve done is already helping the sector to find a fairer balance between risk and reward and this will be crucial to ensuring a sustainable industry going forward. For the first time, we have provided contractors and clients with best practise guidance on contract terms to drive collaborative behaviour – and in doing so, we’ve set out a clear call for a more considered attitude towards risk transfer across the entire industry. 

By their nature and sheer scale these are not problems that can be solved in isolation and we couldn’t have made that progress without positive and willing engagement from the entire industry. 

Similarly, there has been great work done on limiting the impacts of a potential ‘No Deal’ Brexit and changes to regulations following Grenfell and the Hackitt Review – both hugely important areas which no one can deal with by themselves.  

I have now come to the end of my tenure as Chairman, and I’m in the process of handing over to my successor. When I look back over the last two years, I think we can lay claim to genuine progress. 

The more we demonstrate that we’re capable of working together, the more impactful we will be and the more we will able capture the ear of Government to make ourselves heard. A great example is our work on the Reverse VAT changes, postponed after a vigorous, cross-sector campaign. 

Often construction is unflatteringly compared to industries like manufacturing and banking, who are seen as being more effective at working together collectively to drive change. We’ve come a long way in a short time, and we’ve made excellent progress, but occasionally we are still running up against the same outdated, myopic mindsets that prevent real collaboration. 

However, in Brendan Kerr, the Chief Executive of Keltbray who will be taking over my role as Chair of Build UK, I’m confident we have the expertise and leadership skills to take the organisation forward on the next stages of that journey. 

Rarely has the future been so uncertain for the UK economy and our place within it and yet with uncertainty comes opportunity! A number of big challenges are coming our way – from the potential of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit to a worsening skills shortage – and if the industry is going to survive and thrive we have to continue to pull together.

But the reality is that the modern construction industry is an exciting and dynamic place to work, with huge opportunities on offer within a fast-paced technological change already happening on sites and projects across the UK. I suspect that the next forty years are going to look very different to the ones I’ve experienced, and I’m now more certain than ever that we have the industry structures in place to ensure that we’re able to adapt and evolve to meet that challenge. 

We will continue to improve how we work together, and with that maturity will come better behaviours, but that won’t happen by itself. It will take hard work. I – and my colleagues at Mace – will continue to take an active role in Build UK and be at the heart of that change agenda. I would encourage everyone else in the industry to do the same.


An abridged version of this column was published by Building.