Taking care of business

May 2007

Construction Manager
Taking care of Business

It’s a tough world out there. Does anyone give a damn any more? Well, yes. The Considerate Constructors Scheme is proof. Rory Olcayto spent a day with a site monitor

By Rory Olcayto

Remember the nineties? When things were a bit… kinder than they are today? The Cold War was over, there was a jazz-loving president in the White House and Nelson Mandela was building a new South Africa. It was the golden age of ‘soft power’. The construction industry was under the spell too. The nineties were all about ‘Constructing the Team’, shared goals, partnerships and backing down from squaring up.

First coined in 1990, soft power involves wielding power over others not by threatening them with sticks or paying them with carrots, but by co-opting them so that they want what you want. Examples of soft power in global politics may be sorely lacking today, but in construction it’s a concept that still finds favour. And another idea born in the nineties – the Considerate Constructors Scheme – perhaps offers one of the best examples of soft power in action.

The 10-year-old industry-run scheme aims to improve construction’s image by gauging a project’s neighbourliness and the quality of its workplace provisions as well as promoting sustainable building. Its voluntary code of practice is adopted by participating firms who receive site visits from monitors who record how well the code is being observed.

Good sites are rewarded, for example at an annual awards ceremony, while poor sites are encouraged to do better. It’s all part of the soft power ethos. ‘We don’t have teeth, but we do have weight,’ suggests general manager Edward Hardy. Much of that weight has been inherited from Sir Michael Latham’s industry-shaking report which inspired the scheme’s inception.

As I would learn during a day shadowing monitor and scheme director Mike Mitchell, a visit from the Considerate Constructors Scheme is more ‘milk and two sugars please’ than ‘show us your books’. But despite the gentle approach, it seems to be getting its message across. Roughly 30% of UK construction activity is registered with the scheme.

As Hardy says: ‘In the early days we had to sell the scheme to reassure people it wasn’t about more red tape and making life difficult. But now it’s broadly accepted.’

Not all parts of the UK are compliant however. Uptake in Scotland is particularly poor, although it did provide this year’s most considerate site, a Scottish Water project in Perthshire.

The monitors are ‘the backbone’ of the scheme and the secret of its success. ‘I’ve heard that on many occasions they have been the most experienced professionals to have visited a site,’ claims Hardy. Mitchell says that during visits, he’ll temper the inspection according to three factors: the size of the contractor involved, the size of the project and the experience of the site manager. ‘If a small builder is not sure of its environmental policy, we’ll say, “it’d be good to check that”. But if it’s one of the big boys, we’d be like, “come on!”.’

Hardy adds that the complaints system is crucial to the scheme. ‘There were 118 complaints in March, UK wide. On receipt we take them directly to the contractor. They tend to be dealt with fairly quickly.’

Considerate Constructors has stayed true to its original remit, but as legislation and industry have evolved, so has its questions.

It now asks, for example, if contractors are monitoring their carbon footprints, if they provide access for all, and how many of its operatives speak English. If you believe in soft power, then simply by raising these questions, the scheme becomes a potent force for change. ‘Seven years ago we asked if showers were provided on site. Back then it was a tiny percentage. Now, practically all large sites have them. We’ve helped bring about that change,’ says Hardy.

Whether an hour – the time allocated for a visit – is enough for the monitors to work with is a moot point. ‘It is and it isn’t,’ muses Hardy, adding that 60 minutes is a lot of time out of a site manager’s busy schedule.

Alternative programmes, such as Westminster council’s Considerate Builder Scheme, are another moot point. Hardy is diplomatic when he says he is happy to work with other schemes and adds ‘their remit is more concerned with road congestion anyway’. But he does concede that in the long term, a single point of reference is preferable. ‘The industry needs a standardised benchmark,’ he admits.

The nationwide scheme is not without its critics. Some question the experience and aptitude of the monitors while others suggest it is pointless to award brownie points to a project if it is neighbourly but suffers from poor internal relations as, some believe, has been the case with previous winners.

Says Hardy: ‘We have to remember what our remit is. What we do is simple: we monitor how the site is projected to the outside world. There are other bodies which cover a number of site-related issues.’ And the quality of its monitors? ‘We have a rigorous selection process in place now. Not everyone makes it. About three quarters of applicants become monitors.’

Furthermore, in June, the industry body will publish an independent report which will judge its success in terms of goals achieved and how it is perceived. Hardy promises it will be a ‘warts and all’ investigation.

But there’s another, less introspective initiative, planned for its tenth anniversary year. Edwards explains: ‘We’re asking, “What is the site of the future?” and through the scheme we hope to drive the industry towards that ideal.’ Whether that’s wishful thinking or soft power in action is up for debate. Put the kettle on and let’s talk about it. cm