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A duty to advise

Sir Michael Latham's 1994 report on the construction industry included a call for at least a third of Government projects to be let under the New Engineering Contract within four years. Five years and Sir John Egan's contribution later, the industry has far from satisfied this goal.

The success of the NEC has to be judged beyond the numbers using it by looking at the feedback from those that have. It is largely positive. The feeling is that it does encourage project teams to work together more closely. It also helps problems get resolved more quickly and avoids the need to involve lawyers. The NEC is generally thought to help construction teams finalise accounts quickly so that projects can be wrapped up within weeks, rather than months, of completion.

There have of course been some high-profile critics of the NEC. Leading tunneller Sir Alan Muir Wood suggested after the Heathrow Express trial that it was not suitable for underground works. Many lawyers too have expressed reluctance to back a contract whose plain English style has yet to be tested in court. But there is no doubt that the Institution of Civil Engineers was ahead of the game by recognising that a contract like this was needed before Latham began his examination of the industry.

What the ICE needs to do now is stay ahead and lead efforts to tackle Sir Michael's target. If the NEC is the contract that will deliver construction reform, the Institution should throw its weight behind efforts to get the whole industry using it.

The NEC's success puts the ICE in a difficult position. It is obliged to produce traditional contract forms for those demanding them, and so many clients still do. But by continuing to update, publish and promote the traditional forms, the ICE appears to be undermining efforts to promote the reforms many expect the NEC to deliver.

Of course the ICE cannot tell the industry how to go about its business. But it does have an important role in giving people information and advice.

Taking a strong stance in support of the Latham and Egan reports - even if it is simply a firm recommendation in favour of the NEC - is a vital first step.

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