CM comment: Bottling the Olympic spirit

16 August 2012

Denise Chevin on the key ingredient to keeping the Olympic euphoria going in construction 

Coming down from the Olympic-induced highs is tough isn’t it? Daily Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson summed it up perfectly when she said she wanted an Olympic patch to provide a steady controlled dose of euphoria throughout the day. But it doesn’t take long, particularly in construction, for the economic reality to all come flooding back and the nice warm glow of pride and achievement that the sector has been bathing in to ebb away along with the athletes themselves.

This week the UK’s biggest building contractor Balfour Beatty announced it would be closing 35 offices with the loss of 650 jobs; and Laing O’Rourke announced it is to close its Bison precast concrete factory in Uddingston, Lanarkshire and cut production at the Derbyshire plant with the loss of 125 jobs. At the same time, a survey of architects said a quarter of those in the UK would have empty order books by the end of the year.

True, there appeared to be a glimmer of hope in that employment figures for the second quarter showed 34,000 more people were working in construction compared with the three months previously. But even here the message was mixed as the upswing was attributed to an increase in self-employment and the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development claimed two out of three of the thousand employers it surveyed said they would have to cut back on jobs if economic growth did not pick up in the coming 12 months. And on it goes…

So, hanging on to mood and the benefits that have come the industry’s way because of the Games won’t be easy. But we have to bottle as much as we can as best as we can and look for ways to keep it alive.

Construction needs to find a way to continue the success of the Olympics

One of the first things to do is to make sure the industry wins as much work overseas off the back of the Games’ success. The sector’s stock has gone up enormously both here and abroad. Architects may be pulling a few stunts to draw attention to the ban on marketing involvement, and clearly the situation is a bit of a nonsense. But are we really saying that all those folk involved in the Games aren’t telling potential clients about it? Of course not – companies just need to be more discreet or more creative. Take Dr Dre Beats, for example. Why were the headphones so ubiquitous amongst athletes during the Games? It was down to some guerrilla marketing tactics which saw the firm set up shop as near to the Olympic park as it possibly could and then invite competitors to take a pair.

UKTI is certainly forecasting work will come to British firms on the back of Olympic success and ISG, which built the Velodrome, says its success there played a key role in being appointed to build a new Center Parcs this week.  

Turning attention now to the quality of the work and the way it was delivered, the million dollar question is will the outstanding performance on aspects like training, sustainability and safety will filter down to the industry at large? How does the industry reconcile the economic woes and the bargain basement mentality they are often up against with delivering first-rate welfare facilities and apprenticeships?

It’s a bit like the conundrum the government is facing – selling off playing fields whilst maintaining it wants sport for all.

One good bit of news is that Howard Shiplee, the man in charge of construction at the Olympics, has been made a board director of the HSE this week, so that should help strengthen the legacy there.

What we need to remember is that underscoring this drive and performance of building London 2012 was the 2012 Commitment, the project’s road map for ensuring that what happened in Stratford was construction at its gold-medal-winning best. These commitments were drawn up by industry and public sector bodies together, and then subsequently tweaked to be used more widely across both public and private projects. It’s fair to say the manual has barely come off the shelf.

So, if we really want to bottle the Olympic spirit in construction, then we have the answer – sell benefits of these commitments to the private sector and make them compulsory to follow in the public sector. It can’t stop your general Olympic withdrawal-related depression, or turn the economy round. But it’s the nearest we’ve got to an Olympic Patch.


Leave a comment