A lot of very influential people are saying that the UK’s construction industry has a distinct credibility problem, and it is hard to deny the allegation. Despite steady, sustained improvements in worker health and safety and a recovery from the recent economic crisis that is no less than dramatic, the industry is seen as ‘troubled’ by many and ‘a bunch of crooks’ by a vociferous few. Here is one very good summary of the debate itself, and some of the proposed solutions to the industry’s image problems.
In essence, Mr Morrell points out that not only does the public already lack faith in the ‘virtue’ of the construction industry as a whole due to what is seen as a culture of corporate dishonesty, the industry itself is poorly configured to do its job in the modern world. The result is a looming housing crisis and a populus already bracing itself for the next economic downturn.
Make no mistake – the construction industry is one of the cornerstones of the continuing recovery of the British economy, and a failure to address this lack of confidence in its leadership could threaten that recovery, affecting people all over the world.
The self-policing option
Whilst the construction industry is already to a large extent self-policing, Mr Morrell points out that one option for improving its public image would be to make the culture within the industry more ‘professional’ in the classic sense. In the same way that lawyers and doctors have traditionally been responsible for upholding not just the skill requirements and certification of their practicing members, they also address appearances and public perception. It is not enough, in a ‘classically professional’ culture, to act with all propriety and in accordance with law and regulation. It is just as important to act in such a way that preserves ‘the appearance of propriety’ in all of your business-related and personal actions.
Now, none of the ‘professional’ professions are without their scandals, but they do not face the same image crisis that the construction industry faces. It is certainly an option for the industry, but what would that kind of a culture change mean?
Could the industry really buy into that kind of cultural change? Would individual contractors or workers accept this level of individual responsibility (and the penalties for perceived unprofessionalism even in the absence of evidence of actual misdeeds)? Would Large corporate interests accept that a board of their ‘peers’ would have the power to punish them (or even expel them from the industry) for the sake of improving the industry’s image?
It would be a hard sell, at the very least.
The regulatory option
The other option presented by Mr Morrell is much more modern – but not necessarily any more appealing for all that. He suggests that public confidence in the virtue and responsibility of the construction industry as a whole could be re-established by a regime of stricter and more all-encompassing regulation.
There are certainly arguments for this in history. Industries dating from the time of the industrial revolution have been plagued by what has been called ‘the race to the bottom’, as increased competition in an under-regulated field led to a substantial competitive advantage for those companies and individuals who were willing to cut corners and sacrifice the health and safety of their workers (and even their customers) in order to produce whatever they produced faster and cheaper than anyone else.
No one can argue against the fact that certain industries cannot rely on the free market to correct this flight to the worst possible practices. The need for at least some central regulation and preservation of minimum acceptable standards is inherent in every Western culture, even those not involved in Europe’s ‘ever closer union’ debate.
On the other hand, the UK’s construction industry already is heavily regulated, and those regulations have shown real results. The current regulatory regime is still producing steadily improved conditions and practices within the industry, and many feel the combination of the UK and EU regulations are already too much of a burden. Could imposing regulations on more aspects of the industry, simultaneously increasing the costs of compliance and limiting the potential for profits really improve the industry’s image that much without choking it into recession?