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We must act to make the construction sector more secure

London

The national debate and news cycles can be fickle and hard to predict.

However, one thing we can say for sure, is that if it were not for the domination of Brexit in the public’s imagination then infrastructure would be at the front of everyone’s mind.

Following a variety of high profile issues, from the Grenfell tower tragedy to the collapse of Carillion, our sector has been facing significant challenges. We should not shy away from tackling these simply because other items have taken primacy. Simply because they are not on the tip of everyone’s tongues does not mean they are not serious.

Take the situation with Carillon.   

Executives quizzed

MPs on the cross-party public administration and constitutional affairs committee have quizzed auditors and senior executives from Carillion, with wide ranging topics from nationalisation of infrastructure delivery to corporate governance being explored.

In all of the subsequent debate, the sector should recognise the reality of what has occurred and why. The management of Carillion will be forensically questioned, but there is a bigger picture that must be examined.  

The construction industry has to be brave and indulge in a self-analysis so as to properly respond to the second largest contractor in the country disappearing overnight. There may well be some uncomfortable truths.

Construction represents over 6% of the national economy; our social and economic well-being is fundamentally underpinned by an efficient, effective infrastructure system; and for every pound we spend as a nation on infrastructure, we generate £3 of economic activity. In essence, good infrastructure allows society to be more productive and for its people to have better lives, and earn more. This means it is incumbent on us to make sure that the sector, which is so hugely important, is as secure as it can be.  

Ownership and nationality

The current makeup of the industry means that most of the successful larger contractors in the UK are UK-owned. The majority work exclusively on UK projects for the benefit of the UK economy. In a post-Brexit world, this self-sufficiency will take on new value and exportable potential.

Can we honestly say that we are happy with the system that underpins the construction sector that provides so much inherent value to the country as a whole? Would we accept that it operates with the right behaviours? Are we content that it is sustainable? Do we believe that we are really providing the best outcomes if we focus on lowest costs, competition and a transfer of risk that leaves the supply chain having to take precarious decisions?

Carillion’s collapse should be the canary down the mine. We must take proper account of what has occurred and take the appropriate action.  

Arguably more important, we are divorcing deliverers from customers.

This has an impact on safety and suitability in operation. It constrains high performance. Ultimately, it means we operate in a system from which the public is not getting the product it deserves, needs, or that will provide it with the necessary infrastructure.

This month we have seen commuters suffering at the lack of resilience in a system faced with an extreme weather event. The focus is on capacity but would they not have prioritised reliability instead?

This applies to all of the organisations involved, not just public or private sector but investors, suppliers, advisors and clients. It is down to every party to work together to try and fix the system.

 

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