A chance for change

The coronavirus pandemic has forced everyone into new ways of working, but it’s also brought an opportunity for the whole industry to think again about how we can do business better

The COVID-19 crisis has presented the Scottish construction industry with a potentially unique opportunity to bring about long-lasting change. I believe a number of issues, including conflict avoidance and procurement, could be due for a shake-up, while the new culture of collaboration and sharing ideas for the benefit of the whole industry is something that could continue long after the pandemic is over.

As a specialist in dispute resolution, I’ve been leading a consultation on the future of the sector launched by the Construction Industry Coronavirus (CICV) Forum.

The Forum has brought together a number of trade and professional bodies to share advice and information, as well as talk directly with government, and this recent consultation has been asking the Scottish construction industry what they would like to see in the future. The Forum could have written a document TELLING industry what it would have to do but instead we are asking industry what it wants. Quite simply, what are the issues that are causing the most problems and what can we do to deal with them. That’s why we launched our Blueprint for Change document and I’m hoping that at the end of the consultation period we’ll have a very powerful and rounded view on the future of the industry.

The next step will be to work with government to get the changes implemented. There’s absolutely no shortage of desire to change the way the Scottish construction industry operates. It’s universal.

I’m hopeful that the industry will see widespread adoption of the Conflict Avoidance Pledge, a joint initiative from professional bodies including the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), which aims to use early intervention techniques to resolve issues before they escalate into full-blown disputes. Most of all, I want to see a real ‘culture change’ within the sector, in particular the procurement process, with a greater emphasis on quality, experience and capability when tendering.

For too long, the industry has been driven by a race to the bottom of accepting the lowest price. That’s got to stop. Architect fees have been annihilated over the years, so we need to get back to paying designers properly to design buildings.

I would like to see the reintroduction of a scale of fees in the public sector because most of the construction disputes I deal with go right back to a project not being designed properly from the outset.

Despite these grumbles, one thing I have been encouraged by is the way industry has mobilised during the crisis. The CICV Forum has been incredible because it’s the first time in 40 years we’ve had a collective group of people pointing in the same direction, all trying to improve the construction industry. This Forum has demonstrated that everybody has a desire to achieve a better industry which will benefit all those involved. We’ve worked hard to solve problems and I have come across some of the most incredibly talented people in the past 16 weeks that I’d never met before. We recently had a discussion which involved four major contractors just sharing problems – that’s fantastic and has never happened before.

Despite this optimism, let’s be under no illusions that the challenges facing the industry during the recovery period will be enormous.

Contractors probably won’t be able to generate any applications for payment during restart, which creates an immediate cashflow problem. Then they’ll go on to sites and not be fully productive because of the distancing regulations.

Anecdotally, people are saying productivity might be down 30-60%. Nobody knows for sure, but obviously that will have an impact on the value of applications that contractors are able to make every month.

Health and safety is also absolutely of paramount importance and observing these site operating procedures is going to be critical. The industry has responded well on that. The Forum has produced excellent guidelines on site operating guidance, which have been very helpful for people going back on site.

So progress HAS been made during lockdown – and I just hope we can continue to make progress and bring about real change that benefits us all. This article first appeared in Project Scotland and has been reproduced with their permission.

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