Launching its enquiry into the Scottish construction sector earlier this year, Holyrood’s Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee said it wanted to understand the industry’s challenges “to ensure it realises its full potential”. It is a valuable exercise, since the construction business touches every part of the Scottish economy, generating £21.4 billion per year, employing 170,000 people – or 10% of all Scottish jobs – and sustaining 45,000 businesses.
When giving our evidence to the committee, we suggested that any programme for improvement should focus on four Ps: Procurement, Payment, Professionalism and Policing. As well as a requirement for government to take proactive action, there always remains the challenge of effective implementation and review.
At the root of most of the contentious areas in construction is the business model for procurement, where practices and procedures have not fundamentally changed over many years.
In usual circumstances, a main contractor appointed to deliver a contract proceeds to sub-let the works to myriad sub-contractors who may then further sub-sub-contract. There is very little, if any, engagement with sub-contractors on issues such as design or risk before the work starts which often leads to a spiral of issues, including challenges over costs for extras and extensions of time etc.
This highly fragmented and costly delivery process, driven by the lowest price and the most onerous of contract conditions, creates a race to the bottom that places an intolerable burden on businesses who often don’t appreciate how exposed they are. Often this race is won by businesses that spend little time and capital in investing in up-skilling their workforce or recruiting and training the workforce of the future.
The Scottish Government has made some sterling efforts to address some of the issues, but many others still require to be addressed including:
Avoiding the use of multiple schemes of pre-qualification
Requiring contracting authorities to consider if the work could be done by SMEs or SME joint ventures
Encouraging early involvement of key specialist contractors to inform the design and planning process
Insisting on approval of sub-contract conditions to stop Tier 1 contractors transferring risk along the supply chain.
Above all, traditional procurement systems are no longer fit for purpose. We need to be radical and bring in more innovative systems, like insurance-backed alliancing.
Research from 10 years ago suggested that every £1 spent on construction created up to £5 in GDP growth. We believe the economic impact could be greater if we were able to eradicate the endemic process waste in delivery systems. For example, failure to engage the supply chain early enough to inform design decisions means construction costs are increased to reflect changes to designs to make them fit for manufacture.
The Procurement Reform (Scotland) Act 2014 requires contracting authorities with an annual spend of more than £5 million to include strategies for 30-day payment to sub- and sub-sub-contractors.
However, our surveys show that, in 2016, 45% of reporting authorities were non-compliant. New figures will be out soon, but in order for this objective to be fully realised, the government should legislate to mandate 30-day payments.
Project Bank Accounts are the most effective way of ensuring that cash is disbursed to the supply chain without delay and we were delighted when the Scottish Government reduced this to £2 million. We are keen to work with government to see how we can promote the use of PBAs more widely.
We believe the Scottish Government should have the courage of convictions over its own Approved Certifier of Construction scheme and mandate it for all directly funded work, to ensure that only properly qualified people carry out public sector work. Recognising and legislating on our campaign to introduce Protection of Title would also raise the bar of electricians’ status across Scotland.
We must invest more resource in ensuring compliance with regulation and best practice. We have urged the Scottish Government to create a Office of Public Procurement Regulator, who could challenge poor practices and, if necessary, impose penalties on regular offenders.
We need to move our sector towards the value systems in other sector supply chains – close collaboration, payment security and shared risk and reward, effective communication and a shared focus on the product. Only then will construction take its rightful place in 21st century business.