‘Quick wins’ would boost new Scottish Construction Accord engagement

Ron Fraser, Ivan McKee MSP and Peter Reekie at the launch of the Scottish Construction Accord

THE new Scottish Construction Accord needs some ‘quick wins’ to maximise industry engagement and convince the wider sector of its value.

That’s the view of Alan Wilson, MD of SELECT and chair of the Construction Industry Collective Voice (CICV).

The Accord was recently launched by Scotland’s public sector and construction industry. It is a shared commitment to help businesses thrive, enhance working conditions for employees, improve the delivery of construction quality, and assist with net zero goals.

Described as the first of its kind in the UK, the Accord highlights the need to improve the ‘capability and diversity’ of the construction workforce, reform procurement practices, and increase the use of digital technology and modern methods of construction.

It sets out collaborative working arrangements to develop and deliver a transformation plan for construction after the potential for an Accord between the industry and public sector to improve outcomes was identified by the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland in its Delivery Findings Report. Following a consultation period, the Accord was launched by the Scottish Government’s business minister Ivan McKee and industry leaders acting through the Construction Leadership Forum (CLF).

Its implementation will be driven by a Transformation Action Plan with working groups focusing on key priorities.

Alan Wilson told Project Scotland he is encouraged by the work that has gone into the Accord so far and is optimistic that it will bring about genuine and lasting change. He admitted, though, that one of the biggest challenges in making it work will be getting groups around the table and making sure everyone in the industry is engaged.

“If we can prove to people that it’s working, that might change mindsets,” he explained. “This is a difficult situation in a difficult time.

“If we’re at a nadir of things like skills, payment, workloads, and material costs, this is an opportunity to reset the industry and think what do we want, not now, but in two, three- or five-years’ time? What do we want our industry to look like? What do we want it to be?

“Hopefully people will get engaged enough to make those changes. There are some great people out there; really bright people who are committed to the industry who can make a difference.”

Alan Wilson

Alan revealed one of the things which is becoming increasingly evident is that we can’t do things in isolation. He’s been around construction for more than 40 years and been involved in trade associations for 37 of those. Whilst trade bodies have come together collectively in the past in certain situations, Alan admits there wasn’t that ‘wholescale collaboration’.

“I think what the Accord aims to do – and this is a laudable objective – is to bring everyone around the table,” he added. “We’re never going to agree on everything and even in the CICV, which has been tremendously successful, we still have areas we don’t have unanimity. What’s important is that people understand other people’s views on things.”

Alan cited the thorny issue of cash retentions as one where there are often differing opinions amongst contractors, sub-contractors, architects, and clients. Past experience tells him that people can become intransigent in their views, even though solutions may potentially be found by working together.

“You need to engage because it’s all too easy to sit on the sidelines and snipe and say nothing’s going to change or this isn’t going to happen,” Alan said. “Well, nothing will happen unless you make it happen and get involved. I used to think I was a sceptic, but I realise now I’m a realist. Being a realist, I know it’s not going to change overnight… but it will reset the direction of travel. We can’t underestimate enough how much coming together and understanding each other’s position does help to change minds.”

From speaking to other trade bodies, Alan revealed there is a ‘degree of realism’ about the Accord. Lots of industry stalwarts have ‘been around the block many times before’, but he is confident that this latest initiative will prove to be a turning point – IF the industry can see early evidence of its success.

“It is different this time and I’m really keen to encourage my colleagues to look at it differently,” Alan stated. “Getting individual businesses involved is difficult because ultimately what they’re about is looking after their own business, quite rightly, and we’re facing a very difficult time with skills shortages, payment issues, material shortages, cuts and budgets.

“I just hope individuals who are interested take the opportunity to get involved, but it’s going to take a bit of time because I think there’s nothing better than seeing some successes to encourage people to participate. We need to focus on wins that the industry will see. At the end of the day, we’re all human and we all want something out of it for ourselves. I think that’s not an unreasonable expectation. People should see benefits out of the Accord.”

Alan believes there is appetite for change within the industry, with a growing realisation that issues such as tackling skills shortages and meeting ambitious environmental targets will only work through collaboration. The way the industry worked together during the worst stages of the pandemic highlights what can be achieved.

Alan is confident that the companies that choose to embrace change will be rewarded, stating that the Accord will ‘emphasise that clear blue water’ between those trying to do the right thing and those who are stuck in the past.

He sees procurement as being the biggest and most important issue that the Accord will seek to address.

“If we’re talking about the building blocks on a building – no pun intended – you’ve got to start the beginning, at the foundations,” he said. “How do we procure work? How do we pay for it? How do we engage with our clients and contractors? How do we build things that are going to have a long shelf life, which are going to be easier to maintain and service rather than just being erected and then forgotten about? That has to be the key priority.

“Then we’ve got issues about capacity and capability, and diversity of the workforce. We’ve got a terribly poor record on diversity in the industry. I’ve got seven grandchildren, soon to be eight, and five of them are girls. I would be really disappointed if at least one of them doesn’t end up in construction because I think it’s a great career.

“We need to be grown up about a conversation around things like the way in which we work, the hours we work, the days we work.”

Alan sits on a European group for electricians and revealed that diversity challenges are just as prevalent in other European nations. He said the Netherlands has the highest percentage of female electricians, but even there the figure is only 8%. He cited a Swedish study last year, which looked at ways to encourage more women into the industry. Issues such as working hours and workwear being generally designed for men came to the fore. What Alan found particularly interesting, however, was that a number of men also wanted more flexibility because they were becoming more involved in aspects of family life like taking their children to school or looking after their parents.

These are the types of conversations which the Accord could help to facilitate.

One of the other factors which makes this attempt to transform the construction industry different is that there is genuine support from senior politicians.

Alan explained, “We’ve always striven as an industry to have a construction minister and it’s never quite happened. I think the pandemic has brought government ministers around the table, which is so important. I think it’s great to see that level of engagement and hopefully government – whatever type they are – will be interested in taking long-term decisions for the benefit of the nation, not for the benefit of politicians.”

At the launch of the Accord, business minister and chair of the CLF Ivan McKee said, “The construction sector is vital for Scotland’s economy, employing more than 130,000 people and playing a key role in delivering Scotland’s just transition to net zero. This industry-wide Accord contains a real commitment to ensuring construction remains a valuable contributor to the economy, while delivering change aligned with our National Strategy for Economic Transformation.”

Peter Reekie, chief executive of infrastructure body the Scottish Futures Trust, and chair of the executive group of the CLF, added, “The Scottish Construction Accord and the forthcoming Transformation Action Plan recognises that change is needed and we can only deliver it by working together. We need to bring in new and diverse talent and ensure the whole workforce has the competencies to support the future of the industry and we need to build and maintain assets in different ways using different materials to deliver a net zero, carbon-built environment.”

Ron Fraser, chair of Construction Scotland Industry Leadership Group and co-chair of the CLF’s Transformation subgroup, said, “The construction sector encompasses the design, manufacture, construction and maintenance of the built environment that supports us all and offers an incredibly varied, satisfying and rewarding career to people of many different backgrounds and talents. Those who work in it know that it could achieve much more for all its stakeholders if some things were done differently – not least the ways in which we do business together – and the Accord is an opportunity for the industry, its public sector customers and the Scottish Government, to work together to discuss and agree the nature of those changes and to see them through to implementation.”

Support for the Accord has been far-reaching. Vaughan Hart, MD of the Scottish Building Federation, said it was ‘extremely heartening’ to see issues that the industry has been talking about for years being taken seriously at the highest levels of government, while Gordon Nelson, Scotland director of the Federation of Master Builders, said it has the potential to ‘help create entrepreneurial people, establish new market opportunities, support productive businesses and regions, build a skilled workforce and deliver a fairer and more equal society’.

Experienced construction consultant Len Bunton hopes the Accord will help address issues he has been campaigning to improve for decades, but stressed that if it is to work, there must be buy-in from everyone in the industry. “It is the only way to tackle issues such as late and withheld payments that continue to blight the sector,” he added.

Len Bunton

Fiona Hodgson, chief executive of the Scottish and Northern Ireland plumbing Employers’ Federation (SNIPEF), called the Accord a ‘significant step forward’ and an opportunity to make ‘real, practical change that will benefit everyone who works in the construction sector’.

She added, “The past two years have proved that the three Cs – collaboration, cooperation and commitment – are key to any success, so we MUST work together if we are to achieve meaningful change through its recommendations.”