Quality ‘revolution’ would bring raft of gains for Scotland’s construction sector


THE chief executive of Scottish Futures Trust (SFT) is calling for a quality ‘revolution’ within the construction industry similar to that seen around health and safety in recent decades.

Peter Reekie told Project Scotland that if the sector starts to focus on the quality of construction in the same way it now thinks of health and safety, the result will be environmental, sustainability, profitability, and mental health gains.

“I think the biggest change in health and safety was cultural rather than rules-based and the biggest change in quality needs to be cultural rather than rules-based,” he explained.

“Arguably we’ve had too much of a focus over the last 20 years on saying, ‘I’ve got a quality management system, I must be delivering quality’, and it turns out you need more than a quality management system to deliver quality. You need competence and you need the right culture.

“I think that making it all encompassing, making it something that we do across the industry for the same reasons we did health and safety, drawing in competence and culture as well as systems and processes to make that change, are vital for the quality agenda. And then I believe it will have an equal impact as health and safety has had on all the different elements – environmental, sustainability, profitability, workforce mental health.

“All of these things will improve with quality alongside the product.”

Peter Reekie spoke to Project Scotland following the publication of the SFT’s business plan for 2024-25, which highlighted the new types of infrastructure required to support ambitious environmental goals, and the opportunities this will present for the construction sector.

Peter Reekie

The big investment themes across the public sector include affordable housing, the transition to net zero, and the transformation of public service delivery.

Increased digitalisation and use of modern methods of construction will be at the heart of industry opportunities and challenges, with the SFT vowing to continue to deliver initiatives developed by the Construction Leadership Forum in its Transformation Action Plan for the industry in Scotland.

Peter described Scotland’s net zero aspirations as ‘probably the biggest single societal, economic, industry change’ that we’re seeing at the minute, and will lead to the construction sector being tasked with delivering fewer new build and more refurbishment projects, with offsite construction featuring prominently.

“I do believe that (offsite) market will grow,” he added. “If we don’t keep up with it in Scotland, we could for the first time see construction activity imported at a scale we’ve not seen. How do we keep that market domestic? There’s not that much of a difference between offsite and offshore, and we need to think about the development of our indigenous market for modern methods of construction to keep that economic activity in Scotland.”

Doing different things, doing things differently, and using different materials will all be key. Peter revealed that things which might seem relatively minor are big changes for the industry, such as getting diesel off construction sites, reducing travel, and reducing re-visits.

Peter paid tribute to the construction industry’s ability to adapt to significant change, highlighting some of the recent work done within Scotland’s Learning Estate Investment Programme (LEIP), which SFT manages. “When we put an in-use energy target for those new schools that was linked to funding, that has driven a massively quick change in the design and construction industries across Scotland,” he said. “If you spoke to most of the main contractors or the medium/larger-scale designers about where they got their first Passivhaus experience at scale, it came from a building in the schools’ programme.

“People can have a go at us in the industry for being a bit slow to adopt change, but when the right drivers are there and people see that there’s an incentive to change, I think that we’re a pretty agile bunch actually, and we are able to make step changes in the way buildings perform and the way we design them and construct them pretty quickly.

“What we see is there is a big client responsibility in understanding what that future can be and working with the industry. The Construction Accord is trying to draw all of those stakeholders together and not just be, for example, government writing a paper about how the industry needs to change, or the industry writing a paper about what government needs to do to help it to change. It’s about us all agreeing what different outcomes we want for the industry, for the workforce, for businesses, for consumers, for the environment, and then agreeing a joint programme of work to deliver those outcomes. That won’t be perfect, it won’t be easy, it won’t be quick, but setting shared outcome goals to start with I think is how we’re going to deliver that change.”

The SFT was established in 2008 as an arm’s length operation funded by the Scottish Government with a remit to improve public infrastructure investment. Peter credits much of its success to an ability to make connections and do things in a place-based way differently to how they’ve been done before.

The organisation has delivered the schools programme for a long time now, using programme approaches to improve the outcomes for young people based on high-quality infrastructure. It also manages the hub programme and is currently collaborating with a number of agencies and local authorities on the Edinburgh Home Demonstrator, a scheme developing a new model for the delivery of affordable housing. SFT was also responsible for the popular Construction Pipeline Forecast Tool, a portal for the industry to find out about construction opportunities across Scotland.

Peter agreed that the construction sector traditionally hasn’t been very good at talking itself up, despite being responsible for a sizeable chunk of the economy. To help deliver some of the required changes, he is urging the industry to sell itself and be positive about the prospects.

“We need to be proud of the opportunities that we offer people for good quality jobs, whether they’re practical people, creative people, digital people, organised people. Sometimes I think we do ourselves down and allow this image to persist that we’re only what they see, a bunch of yellow-jacketed men going around muddy sites. That is not all or even most of the industry. That’s our fault. We need to do better than that, show that we are much more than that traditional picture of the industry. Part of this joint work is creating that positive image of what construction is, what construction will be, how for example if you want a job in construction you will be the people delivering net zero. Be part of that change.”