Construction’s parallel universe
Crossrail: was anyone paying attention? (Crossrail)
To be taken seriously by those outside the industry, construction needs to learn lessons from its own failings and embed quality in everything it does, argues Chris Blythe.
The construction industry sometimes seems to inhabit a parallel universe. To those outside the industry, and those in government especially, what the industry says has very little value. Any kudos that the industry got as result of the Olympic delivery has long evaporated.
The current cycle of cynicism started with the Edinburgh schools fiasco where bricklayers seemed unable to build walls with the right ties in place, compounded with poor supervision and inadequate inspection which failed to identify the issues. How children were not killed was a miracle.
About the same time, a housebuilder was alleged to have been involved in a scandal where it was paying people cash to move into unfinished homes, presumably to hit “completion” targets.
Imagine if you went to pick up your new car and the dealer said: ‘The car’s not finished – we still have a door to put on but we need to book the sale, so here’s £50 for you to take it out of the showroom.’ Perhaps if you worked in housebuilding you might take the deal!
“The contractors blame the client and subcontractors, the subbies blame the consultants and designers, everyone blames the lawyers.”
Along came Grenfell Tower and what Dame Judith Hackitt said in her report came as no surprise to anyone. She characterised a dysfunctional industry full of well-intentioned people but missing the point. As if to prove her case, the finger-pointing that followed came as no surprise.
The consultants blame the contractors, the contractors blame the client and subcontractors, the subbies blame the consultants and designers, everyone blames the lawyers, and the designers blame the regulations and the government.
Credibility gets stretched to breaking point with the Persimmon bonus lark. What sort of board of a PLC agrees such a deal and what sort of beneficiaries allow this to roll out the way it did?
Credibility is finally shattered with Carillion. Unfinished roads, hospitals left empty, and the lives of both the people depending on Carillion for providing the means for life-saving treatment and businesses and livelihoods wrecked. It is no wonder the government has asked public contractors to prepare a “living will”.
The big project competency gloss finally went when less than three months before Crossrail was due to go into operation in December 2018, it was announced it would be delayed until December 2019.
I cannot help but think that someone was not paying attention to what was happening because I suspect anyone working underground could tell you that the opening date was impossible to meet. The criticism of Crossrail is that no one appreciated the complexity of the project.
Is there any guarantee that the same is not the case for HS2? London to Leeds and then Newcastle via Birmingham? Originally conceived to move people quickly and rejustified on grounds of extra capacity, it is already admitting that it is considering running fewer, slower trains in order to save money.
Is HS2 doomed, leaving devastation to homes and communities in its wake? Or will efforts within the industry to learn lessons and embed quality in construction bring them back to the real world?
Chris Blythe is chief executive of the CIOB