80 Years of Reports
Plus ça change, Plus c’est la même chose
The more things change, the more they remain the same – this paradox, first written by Alphonse Karr in 1849, is often typified by the construction industry. Seeking to shift this status quo and instead create a new vision for the next decade, the Infrastructure Projects Authority earlier this week released the Transforming Infrastructure Performance (TIP): Roadmap to 2030.
The TIP Roadmap provides a new model of the built environment that draws a direct link between the outcomes we need as a society and the decisions we make to build, maintain and renew our infrastructure.
Whilst supporting this vision of the future we are conscious of another epigram:
Alongside our future-gazing, we have therefore taken the opportunity to reflect upon 80 years of Government reports to inform our assessment of what may follow publication of TIP.
Beginning with the Simon report, dated 1944, we have plotted the stated issues and recommended solutions within 26 of the most influential reports published by the Government on construction. At first glance, this graphic illustrates how successive reports have continued to repetitively uncover the same industry woes. From Simon (1944) to the Farmer Report (2016), the description of a fragmented industry has been a consistent narrative with each report encouraging improved relationships founded on principles of best value. This constant enabled in part Paul Morrell, former chief construction adviser, to boast that his 2011 Construction Strategy contained ‘virtually no new thinking’.
Despite repeated encouragement, history would suggest that the pace of reform has been pedestrian. The fault for this however cannot be exclusively laid at the door of industry; a review of the archives shines light upon the socio-economic context as a hiding hand and influence over both the sentiment and health of the construction industry.
For many years this dynamic has served to foster an ambivalent relationship between Government and the contracting market; the supply chain has held both a heavy reliance upon the public sector to provide a steady flow of work as well as degrees of resentment towards the government’s power to determine the pipeline, as economic conditions vary. More recently, however, the relationship has evolved.
The publication of the Construction Playbook in 2020 represented a joint endeavour; a collaboration between public and private sectors to bring together expertise with ambitions to transform our infrastructure network. The TIP Roadmap follows in a similar vein.
With broader authorship, the foundation and tone of the reports have evolved. Initial publications were largely research-based, by empirical enquiry, offering new insights into the industry ecosystem with findings to be implemented by ‘community action. Typified by ‘Modernise or Die’, time has seen a more provocative, hard-edged style emerge as impatience towards the industries frailties has grown.
Nonetheless, only by exception have declarations of intent been developed into defined action plans with milestones, ownership and accountability. TIP offers promise in this regard, however, it is too premature to determine whether it will ultimately drive transformative change or remain performative. The hope that “this time it’s different” could well again prove to be folly.
Scepticism, fuelled by history or otherwise, should not overshadow however the important shift in focus towards delivering better societal and environmental outcomes. Whilst the majority of historical reports were introspective, concentrated upon dissecting contemporary industry issues of an economic nature, recent publications have assumed a wider lens toward broader challenges.
Catalysed by the pandemic, the impact of the built environment upon people and nature, for current and future generations, has been brought into sharp focus. The environmental and social responsibility of our work now assumes centre stage; themes of consumption in the 1950s and conservation in the 1990s have been superseded by today’s gravitation towards circularity.
In shifting the focus from creating the built environment to instead the outcomes enabled by it, a systems-based approach has been introduced into the industry lexicon. This will need the collaboration and integration that has been so strongly advocated for the past 80 years however the importance of rising to the challenge cannot be overstated. After all, a year before the Simon report, someone famous once said:
On reflection, perhaps the value of our industry should be the most important constant we recognise.
 Construction Reports 1944-98 by Murray, Mike, Landford, David