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Chance to get down to business

What to expect from next week's Construction Task Force conference.

Next Tuesday a cross section of industry leaders will sit down with Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London for the Rethinking Construction conference.

Promised at the publication of Sir John Egan's Construction Task Force report of the same title last July , the event will be a very high profile gathering.

Clients like Railtrack, BAA, MEPC and Thames Water will be joined by the likes of Arup chairman Duncan Michael, Tarmac chief executive Sir Neville Simms, Mace chairman Ian MacPherson and Galliford managing director George Marsh.

The Department of the Environment, Transport & the Regions has been rounding up clients, contractors, consultants and suppliers who have shown commitment to taskforce's aim of improving the quality and efficiency of the UK construction industry. In all, around 300 industry delegates are expected to attend. They will have done this by putting forward a demonstration project that can be used to test and develop the ideals of long term relationships, lower costs, higher productivity and increased profits set out in the task force report.

The event is the moment when the construction industry can pick up the gauntlet and get on with changing its own culture instead of being ordered to change by others.

'I am keen to get down to the cool reality of the whole thing,' says Arup chairman Duncan Michael. 'How do we implement the ideas given that at the moment we have the same people and the same skill levels? How do we make the shift?

'It is going to be a lot of hard work, requiring a great deal of commitment and effort from everyone. But we are going to give it a jolly good try.'

One of the key discussions will concern the creation of a knowledge centre which clients and construction industry can tap into. This will provide information on how productivity gains have been achieved on particular civil engineering or building projects.

'We will be trying to create a construction group in the round - a construction club - where the only price of membership will be that people are prepared to learn,' says Railtrack development director Martin Reynolds.

The demonstration projects will be critical to this. Their progress will be closely watched for indications of what works and what does not. They will also provide benchmarks against which others can measure their own achievements.

'We have to be prepared to share our successes and failures,' says Reynolds. He recognises this may be difficult for a lot of people. 'There will always be a human wish not to share failure, and people will be nervous about giving away their unique selling point. It will be the brave who do,' he says.

Mace's Ian MacPherson will be representing his own company and the CIOB at the conference. 'I am hoping to get a good picture of the various pieces of work being done on the implementation side and agree in practice the way forward with relation to the knowledge centre,' he says.

'I think the DETR's idea to hand the process over to us as an industry is very important. We can't sit back and expect our clients to make all the running. If we don't take it on ourselves, the drive for change will not be grassroots based and won't engage everyone.

'My biggest concern is that the industry does not rush off on 50 different fronts. We all need to co-ordinate. CIOB, BRE, CIB for instance should not be off doing their own thing. The knowledge centre has to be seen as sitting in a non-commercial environment.'

Benchmarking and measurement will form the basis for another important discussion on the day, says Macpherson. 'How will the benchmarking be set up, what are we going to benchmark?'

The major contractors are keen that clients co-ordinate any benchmark comparison studies, acting as honest broker. Equally important, particularly in the search for continuous improvement, is each company's benchmarking of its own activities.

If clients are increasingly going to tie into long term partnering arrangements they need to know they are getting best value for money, says Railtrack's Reynolds. 'People will be required to show diligence and that is where benchmarking helps.'

It is going to be particularly important in allowing the Government to drop its adherence to lowest cost competitive tendering - where construction spends its time engineering the value up - to long term alliancing where the aim is to engineer the real cost down.

The industry is united in saying that Government could make or break its own task force's plans for a change in construction culture. It is the industry's biggest client and the one most wedded to competitive tendering and Dutch auctions as a way of demonstrating value for money. And it is constantly surprised when jobs run way over on cost and time as contractors, consultants and suppliers use all the old tricks in the battle to make a margin on the project.

Signs are there that Government is prepared to move towards the ideals of shared risk and reward. Paymaster General Robinson is expected to discuss the introduction of a 'benchmarking' approach to supplier selection in the action plan he will present at the conference.

Last month the Ministry of Defence announced its prime contractor scheme with fewer contractors and suppliers working long term on the ministry's annual pounds 1.5bn programme of property maintenance and capital works. In future contracts will be awarded on the basis of best value, not lowest price.

Perhaps most significant of all, the National Audit Office is looking at how the taskforce's ambitions can be married to its remit to check that Government is getting full value for its money.

As Duncan Michael says, with all this to discuss delegates at next week's conference 'can look forward to a very exciting day'. JW

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