Expensive and inefficient: is the UK construction industry killing itself by failing to innovate? It’s time to stop and reflect.
Sir John Armitt is a man who’s opinions demand attention. Not a man for bombast or exaggeration, he is a man who has seen much and knows much more, and generally makes his thoughts known subtly and without agenda.
So his comments at the Next Generation Infrastructure event at the ICE, put on last week by consultant Mott MacDonald and campaigner Build Offsite to explore how the sector could evolve to be more efficient, warrant close attention.
Because they contained stark, if subtle warnings.
The government’s plans for new nuclear at Hinkley Point C are by no means assured, he said. Affordability of infrastructure in the UK remains a huge problem, he warned. European contractors are still more innovative and efficient than their UK counterparts, he surmised. And UK clients are not helping by squeezing margins and in doing so snuffing out research and development spend, he said.
His comment on Hinkley is honest, if surprising. As ICE president and National Infrastructure Commission member he is currently leading work on the National Needs Assessment, an ICE-led piece of work that will inform the commission’s work to work up a priority list for infrastructure investment.
New power stations to replace our ageing fleet of life-expired coal plants has to be top of any list. Yet his view was that Hinkley, with its costs already high and continuing rise, is at real risk.
As he said, the public are the people who pay at the end of the day and ultimately Hinkley comes back to what the public can afford to pay for electricity.
He clearly thinks it should be cheaper. Of course the project is being backed and delivered by EdF, and is being designed and (in theory built) by an Anglo/French contracting joint venture of Laing O’Rourke and Bouygues. And EdF and Bouygues are really struggling to deliver a similar scheme in France. So it’s harsh to blame the UK construction industry for that one.
But in the bigger scheme of things, Armitt’s thoughts around the state of UK contracting are interesting.
Of course, he has aired them before. Indeed, he last re-asserted the view that the European model – where the supply chain is far more vertically integrated – delivers better and more efficient solutions – at his Presidential Address last November. He formed this view while leading delivery of the Second Severn Crossing; there the complex cable stay bridge was designed by French contractor GTM’s in-house design team – and through that delivered a super-efficient, buildable design. Nothing he has seeen in the years since has caused him to change his mind.
But since then he has been on a whirlwind tour of UK regions, presumably being exposed to the best that UK construction can offer. So it is interesting that his views do not appear to be changing. As you’ll see in next week’s NCE100 special issue, there is some incredible stuff happening out there. Stuff being born out of a real investment in research and development and through pan-industry collaboration.
So maybe things are changing. And maybe it is early days in his year; maybe there is more to see to change his mind and make him a little more optimistic. We’ll see.