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Bottoms up to the bad old ways

Comment

Private finance contractors are loan sharks ripping off the National Health Service. Designers are forcing up costs on the Welsh and Scottish parliaments.

The national news stories of the last couple of weeks are nothing if not partisan in knowing who to blame when costs rise on construction projects.

One day perhaps, the contribution made by clients in creating the horrible mess that is a construction scheme gone wrong will be properly highlighted and admitted.

Three years after Sir John Egan's Rethinking Construction initiative was launched to rid the sector of its tarnished image, the consensus is that while the supply side of the industry has made a broad commitment to change and improve; the laggards holding up real change are the clients.

Still too often they want more than they are willing to pay for, opt for cheap and shoddy over quality, and change their minds without accepting the impact this has on the final price of a job.

Still too rarely are they ready to work with their suppliers to pin down exactly what they want built, are prepared to pay a fair rate for the work, or are willing to share the savings that result from the inventiveness of their supply team.

Nevertheless, there is a strong body of people determined to convert clients into responsible employers.

Egan is now running a new Strategic Forum to keep the initiative on track. After the forum's first meeting he said a key focus in the future was to commit clients to change.

Zara Lamont, new head of the Construction Clients Confederation, is determined to make clients differentiate and reward the suppliers that have invested in more efficient ways of working.

And the Health & Safety Executive has shone the spotlight on clients, with its assertion that lowest price bidding is one of the root causes of the increase in accidents and deaths on sites (see news).

But what chance have these reformers really got? With the word recession being bandied about again, the temptation to focus on price is likely to be too strong for many to resist.

Big, repeat order clients like Railtrack and some in the water industry are in the middle of major upheaval and have cancelled or lost sight of post Egan procurement initiatives.

And there are plenty of examples of plain old bad behaviour emerging, such as organisations which were once committed to the new industry now opting not to pay suppliers at the year end to bump up their final figures.

Of course the supply side has to play its part. If it does not deliver value to the client then it is hard to argue that clients should change. And most construction businesses are also clients in their own right - do they really treat their suppliers in the way they want to be treated?

Real change starts from the grassroots up rather than the top down. If contractors and consultants become best practice clients as well as best practice suppliers, the swell of opinion will grow and envelope clients at the top of the chain.

The remedy to the client problem is ours to solve. Who is ready to make the vital first move?

Jackie Whitelaw is managing editor of NCE.

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