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Construction's great divide

Clients' charter

In what once would have been described as smoke-filled rooms, construction clients are struggling to develop the industry's equivalent of the Magna Carta.

Its working title is the Clients' Charter, although some think that this smacks of woolly Majorism and would prefer something more zeitgeisty like the Client Challenge. The charter, or whatever it gets called, is due to be launched in July and is part of the procurement revolution breathed into life by the Latham review and given new impetus by the Egan initiative.

Precisely how the charter will work is unclear, its launch has already slipped three months, but the general thrust is to get clients to sign up to continuous improvement in areas such as health and safety, training,sustainability and, of course, construction efficiency. Contractors and consultants would be expected to help meet these standards and the 'chartered clients' will be regularly assessed to make sure they are complying.

The potential impact of the charter is huge, especially as the aim is to have clients responsible for 50% of UK construction spend signed up by the launch. But it may also exacerbate one of the potential dangers of this concerted and long overdue attempt to make UK construction procurement more equitable and efficient.

Most major construction clients have finally woken up to the fact that the best way to get value for money is to develop long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with their suppliers rather than launching intoa series of adversarial one-off contracts.

Whether it is partnering or alliancing in the private sector or prime contracting in the public, the new style of construction procurement grows ever more sophisticated and desirable. The integration of supply chains will take things to a new level as firms from outside the construction sector begin to contribute their expertise and the industry's disciplinary and corporate fragmentation begins to break down.

But what happens to the one-off clients who have no real incentive, or opportunity, to join the ranks of the enlightened? There is a growing danger that they will be left to be served by the consultants and contractors who could not or did not want to embrace the new culture of co-operation.

There are, of course, many smaller firms who implicitly understand partnering and its derivatives. Many indeed claim they have been practising it for decades, while the big boys learnt to be bullies. These firms will prosper, often acting as specialists on higher margin work for repeat clients.

One-off jobs for clients who have not learnt the lessons of Egan are going to be increasingly unattractive to the best construction firms and the way will be left clear for the cowboys. What may quickly develop is an underclass of construction firms who give low priority to issues like training and safety and whose clients (eventually) take possession of their new office buildings or warehouses cursing the industry and all who work in it.

Delivering a robust and practical Clients' Charter will be a great leap forward for UK construction. The question remains, however, how many construction firms and their clients will be left behind still fighting the old battles.

Alastair McLellan is editor of NCE

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