Construction’s role in the economy
The construction industry in the UK is a vital business sector. It employs 2.1 million people, in over a quarter of a million firms and is now the second largest in the EU.
Not only does the construction industry contribute 8.2% of the nation’s GDP, but many of its leading players – architects, civil engineers, contractors and suppliers – are world leaders.
In every major city and country around the world, British designers, contractors and suppliers are at the heart of some of the world’s most important projects.
And the strength in depth which you as specialists in construction represent is vital. Without a diverse and dynamic specialist market many of the major contractors would struggle to deliver the schemes which are vital to our economic future.
It’s something we can take great pride in, and something which we in politics need to better understand.
Constructions’ impact on the environment
By its very nature, the entire construction process can have detrimental effects on the environment.
For example, in terms of energy, the building services sector accounts for approx 50% of UK CO2 emissions, thus not only contributing to climate change, but also consuming non-renewable resources, whilst adding to pollution.
Or take waste. Construction and demolition materials equal 91 million tonnes of waste in Eng & W, every year. Over 90 % of non energy minerals extracted in the UK are supplied as construction materials and the industry annually produces three times the amount of waste generated by all UK households.
So at each stage, the construction process affects our environment. Yet, this also means the industry has a great opportunity to make a significant contribution to reducing our carbon emissions.
Now to be fair, the current Government did, between 2000 and 2003 seem to grasp the importance and urgency of the situation. The development of an initial sustainable construction strategy was a welcome move and the industry responded very positively.
But having reviewed the Government’s actions since, there seems to be a lack of vision and leadership amongst DTI Ministers to drive this process forward.
And what’s clear from the responses to this review, is that many of the key players believe that the process is too short-term, incomplete and uncoordinated to offer much hope.
Making a difference
So let me try and set out three or four ways as to how I believe we can start to make a real difference.
The first step is that Government should set a comprehensive long term strategy, not rely on short term fixes. All too often Ministers are concerned with tomorrow’s press release, when what’s needed is a ten year strategy with clear, focused goals.
For example, take the changes to Part L of the Building Regulations. The motivation behind the new rules is entirely laudable, but its execution was laughable. The approved documents were published just a few weeks before implementation, leaving companies completely unprepared. Meanwhile re-training for building control has either been wholly inadequate or non existent. The net result was chaos.
The second step is that, having set the overall direction, Government should then leave industry to work out the solutions. All too often this Government tries to dictate every last detail. Yet achieving sustainable development and construction will involve a myriad of different ideas and approaches. Government doesn’t cannot - have all the answers.
That’s why I believe that building regulations need to become simpler and less prescriptive. It’s Whitehall telling you not only what needs to be achieved, but how you should do it. I can’t help thinking that what’s needed instead is for Government to set the overall targets and then let you - the experts – work out how to achieve those targets.
It’s a change which would sharply reduce the regulatory burden, and free you to come up with new and exciting ideas. It would stop petty bureaucrats interfering in your daily work and encourage real innovation in the market.
The third step is that government should lead by example. The recent NAO report into Better Construction Procurement highlighted a dismal disconnection within Whitehall, with each department running its procurement practice.
The NAO showed that if Whitehall got its act together it could be leading the way in best practice and could save taxpayers upto £3 billion every year.
The NAO report particularly encouraged departments to adopt whole life value practice. As a Chartered Surveyor this is a message I entirely endorse. Until we consider construction throughout the whole life cycle, we won’t truly secure long term sustainable developments.
Green taxes, not Brown’s taxes.
The fourth and last step is to focus on the opportunities which adopting sustainable principles offers. Many of principles - of reducing waste and cutting energy use – have significant financial benefits to business. And if UK businesses are early adaptors, our experience and new technologies will be saleable around the world. Let’s get ahead of our competitors, let’s turn this to our advantage.
The construction industry in this country has an excellent record of adapting its ways in recent years. Practices have changed radically since the Latham and Egan reports, all for the good.
And I have faith that the industry can again rise to the challenge. For our part, as politicians, we have to provide a long term framework and then, the right balance of incentives and penalties. And we need to use the huge public procurement programme to lead the way.
We will press the current Government to raise its game and where ever possible be constructive. But time is not on our side.
The impact of ever rising carbon emissions affects us all and if unchecked could be catastrophic.
As Conservatives we recognise we have a shared responsibility to
make construction truly sustainable and we look forward to working with the industry in the years ahead.