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Karen Fletcher looks at why we seem unable to learn the lessons from the past

At the end of 2017, the construction industry marked the death of Sir Michael Latham. Many industry leaders and groups commented on his numerous achievements and influence on the sector.

Sir Michael Latham was probably best-known as the author of the 1994 report, ‘Constructing the Team – Joint review of procurement and contractual arrangements in the UK construction industry’. In fact, it has always been more often referred to as ‘the Latham Report’ after its eponymous author.

It would be satisfying to say that his legacy was a revolution in the way construction works, but even after 23 years, it doesn’t really look as though his vision is close to being delivered.

It’s depressing that an industry which has been so regularly and carefully examined for faults for almost a century, seems stubbornly determined to ignore all recommendations

Karen Fletcher Karen Fletcher Editor of Modern Building Services

Sir Michael’s own introduction to the report said that his review of the industry “has been about helping clients to obtain the high-quality projects to which they aspire”.  The main client he had in mind was government, as construction’s biggest customer and spender of taxpayer money.

There was no doubt that after months of investigation, Sir Michael was well aware of the shortcomings of the UK construction industry. He cites waste and inefficiency throughout, as well as calling the sector ‘ineffective’ and ‘adversarial’. Looking back to the launch of the report, no one inside the sector was very surprised by his findings.

Interestingly, at the end of his introduction to the report, Sir Michael writes: “The construction process cannot wait 30 years for another Banwell or 50 years for another Simon.” For those who don’t have the time to browse through the history of the construction sector* and its numerous reports, Banwell and Simon were forerunners to Latham – and they weren’t even the first. 

Reports on construction and its issues with effective delivery in buildings go back a long way:

  • 1934: Reaching for the Skies (Alfred Bossom)
  • 1944: The Simon Report (Sir Ernest Simon)
  • 1967: The Banwell Report (Sir Harold Banwell)

And in general, they all touch on very familiar themes.

In 1934, Bossom went to the USA to observe the construction of the earliest skyscrapers, and he was impressed by an ordered approach to the work which resulted in better buildings as well as higher margins for the construction businesses.

Returning home to the UK, Bossom despondently wrote of the UK construction sector: “The process of construction, instead of being an orderly and consecutive advance down the line, is all too apt to become a scramble and a muddle.”

And that was 83 years ago.

Sound familiar?

Sir Ernest Simon was the first to work on a report for government, examining why construction didn’t seem to be capable of delivering good, value-for-money projects. Interestingly, his recommendations in 1944 included:

  • Better training for construction managers
  • A more collaborative approach
  • Earlier contractor involvement.

The construction sector at that time had a good excuse for ignoring Simon’s recommendations. Rapid reconstruction was required in post-war Britain, and so the idea of changing how things were done was pushed aside. 

It’s depressing that an industry which has been so regularly and carefully examined for faults for almost a century, seems stubbornly determined to ignore all recommendations and cajoling even from its largest clients.

And it’s not as if the industry is making a great living out of working ineffectively – low margins, poor training, failure to attract young employees – these and other problems beset the construction sector.

Construction is a sector that has high barriers to entry. No one can step into the industry from outside to offer a better approach.

But just because that scenario seems impossible now, doesn’t mean it won’t be true in ten years’ time – or even sooner given the pace of change in technology.

If the UK construction industry doesn’t make change happen, it may find itself wondering what happened

Co-operation and sharing

Time and again, we see projects in the press which win awards for excellence in design, efficiency and high occupant satisfaction.

And consistently, these buildings are delivered in ways that are greeted as revolutionary – cooperative, efficient, sharing know-how all along the supply chain.

In fact, these are methods which Latham, Simon, Banwell and Bossom would wholeheartedly endorse.

It is a shame that their legacy can’t be seen more often.

* If you do want to delve deeper into the history of construction reports, you will find this website very useful:

Karen Fletcher is editor of Modern Building Services