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Graham Watts Gunning for the consultants

The government has finally got to grips with becoming a best practice client. Last week it announced a three year programme to improve its performance as a client in line with Rethinking construction. The Deputy Prime Minister wrote to public sector leaders to reinforce the need for radical change in their procurement policies. One key objective is that all government departments should be using partnering by March 2002.

This initiative coincided with the release of three new draft Treasury Guides on procurement strategy. These show that the Treasury is to recommend prime contracting as one of its preferred procurement routes. It will also advocate that traditional forms of contract (JCT, ICE), which give power to anyone other than the client and main contractor, provide poor value for money and should be dropped.

The Ministry of Defence is already pioneering prime contracting for its annual construction budget of around £1.5 billion. This initiative opts for total supply chain management as the requirement for future construction work and the MoD has started the process by appointing a small number of major contractors as their supply chain managers.

So here is government in action: from Prescott's general exhortation to do better, through Treasury guidance on how to be a good client to the specific policy of the Department that spends the most on construction work.

Much of this news is to be welcomed by the industry. The concerted move away from lowest initial cost to the real consideration of best value and whole-life issues is brilliant news.

It is the how and who that bother me. The future lies in strategic alliances and partnering as a means of building and maintaining successful project teams but it is the leadership issue that will determine success. The MoD clearly sees the main contractor in the new lead role.

The days of assuming that the architect or engineer should lead the team are long gone and rightly so. But is the main contractor the right automatic choice as the leader in a new era of prime contracting?

Recent years have been characterised by fierce adversarialism between the main contractors and the firms within the supply chain that they already manage as part of their traditional role. So is this a reasonable point from which to assume that main contractors should also be the best placed to manage the design process?

Most of the industry's innovation, creativity and solutions for sustainable construction come from within the design professions. This will not be altered by the consultants' place in the supply chain but, in the MoD version of prime contracting, these issues will face the same pressures that necessitated the Construction Act and this will diminish the industry's collective ability to rethink construction.

This conviction stems from the experience of the house building sector - one area of construction where 'prime contracting' has existed for a long time.

There are few consultants directly involved in the housebuilding sector and virtually none in the volume market. It provides some food for thought about how other sectors of construction might develop in a world without independent consultants. Last month's 'Raising the Roof' TV programme found that none of 22 randomly selected sites fully complied with acceptable standards. The journalists concluded that it was the absence of independent consultants and inspectors which was causing the decline in standards.

Still thinking about what 'prime contracting' might mean across the industry? I suspect that it will end in tears and, if it fails, I just hope that it doesn't diminish the rest of the Movement for Change.

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