‘Each firm needs to articulate its purpose’ – Guest blog by UCEM Property Award 2019 winner, Sir James Wates

Sir James Wates became the 32nd winner of the UCEM Property Award following in the footsteps of the likes of Sir Michael Latham – author of The Latham Report which transformed the modern construction industry; the National Trust; and our Patron, HRH The Prince of Wales.

The Wates Chairman was recognised for his outstanding contribution to the property industry, as well as his commitment to charitable causes. Sir James used his acceptance speech to reflect on the construction industry’s progress, and lack of, over the past 25 years and where it needs to go to change for the better in future.

Here, we share an edited version of what he had to say…

Sit James Waites receiving his award from JohnI am honoured to receive this award. Looking at the roll of honour of previous winners, I follow in the footsteps of some of the great names of the property sector; people who I hold in the highest regard.

I have a very deep appreciation for University College of Estate Management and, while I am no longer a Trustee, I still feel very much part of the team and closely follow progress.

I love the shelter business. I feel that’s probably the best description of what the Built Environment sector is all about. I love working with the people and I love the fact that what we do actually makes the world a better place. We create the homes and hospitals, railways and roadways, schools and sanctuaries that society needs.

We are a diverse group of people who turn the concept of a building into the reality. And whatever your own specialty, you are helping to leave a legacy as part of a team.

Slow progress

Slightly more than 25 years ago, Sir Michael Latham – a previous winner – published his report called ‘Constructing the Team’.

I had the privilege to know Sir Michael and to follow him as Chairman of the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB). The report he published in 1994 was incredibly important in making the case that our sector needed to change. We needed to be better team players.

I have to admit that I wish we could look back at the past quarter century and point to greater progress. We are still trapped in some of the same old confrontational, antagonistic ways of working.

Contractors are still working on wafer-thin margins which do not allow for investment in the scale of training and technology that we need to step up to the challenge of the Construction Sector Deal for construction.

Gone are the days of the Master Builder who did everything. The sector is highly specialised yet fragmented. This means that when it comes to telling government what we need to do to thrive, we’re not speaking with one clear voice.

Nor are we making ourselves enough of an attractive career option for many young people.

We’re putting new technologies to work, but still there’s a quality gap. Cowboy builders still roam the plain, and poor quality still makes the headlines.

There’s a bit of a Catch-22 situation going on. We need better margins to invest in boosting productivity, but we can’t afford the investments until we boost productivity first.

Highlights

The above sounds a bit gloomy, but we are making progress.

Some highlights:

  • Health and Safety. I remember John Prescott as Deputy PM in 1998 calling the industry to account for its health and safety performance – now we have huge improvements in safety. Tolerance for accidents on-site is a thing of the past, and so numbers of incidents have gone down. The Wates Group has a goal of achieving Zero Harm by the end of next year, and I know other companies have similar targets. As a sector, we’re making great progress to ensure that everyone who goes to work on a construction site returns home safe and sound, fit to work the next day.

 

  • Agreement with the Government on a Sector Deal. We now have a roadmap for increasing our productivity through jumpstarting innovation, improving skills, investing in infrastructure, and reducing inefficiencies. The Sector Deal is an incredibly important game plan, and we need to pull together as a team to implement it.

 

  • Progress on digital tools. We’re using BIM across the value chain on more and more projects and the value of this technology is being understood and increasingly taken up.

 

  • More collaboration and honest debate. I’m particularly proud about the creation of Build UK – which brought together large contractors and the specialist associations both tier ones and tier twos – so that we can all sit around the same table and have honest conversations about the things that matter.

Build UK is only a bit over four years old, but already they’ve had some great successes:

  • Creating a new Pre-Qualification system
  • Harmonising safety standards
  • Driving better payment performance through transparently publishing members’ data
  • Creating a roadmap to Zero Retentions
  • Publishing recommendations for onerous Contract Terms to avoid – apologies to any lawyers reading!

Each of these may seem a small accomplishment, but together they are forming the building blocks of a more collaborative, efficient sector.

The way forward

So that’s the past. But what’s the way forward?

One key piece of the jigsaw is the ongoing reform of CITB. Since taking the reins as Chief Executive a few years ago, Sarah Beale has done tremendous work but CITB needs to be even more agile, even more focused on delivery of the skills we need, where and when we need them.

We also need clearer progression routes for the built environment professions. We need more young people doing apprenticeships, and less of a stigma attached to the vocational route in education. We now have 50% of school leavers going to university – Tony Blair’s ambition – but how many of these degrees are truly worthwhile and how do we attract them to the Built Environment?

It’s a well-publicised trend these days that business leaders are recognising that society wants companies to be more than about profit. It’s about adding value for all stakeholders.

So each company needs to go through a journey of articulating its purpose. In the Wates Group, we have recently articulated our purpose as: ‘Together we inspire better ways of creating the places, communities and businesses of tomorrow’ – or simply, ‘Creating Tomorrow Together’. What does this mean? It means that we don’t chase contracts for the sake of climbing up the league table against our competitors. It means that we constantly seek to create social value in everything we do. It means we work as partners with our clients to help them realise their vision for tomorrow.

I am sure that most leaders in the sector share that same ethos. We want to make a real difference.

I have great aspirations for our industry. Wates are a fourth generation family business looking to hand over a stronger more sustainable business to the next generation, and from a Wates family point of view, in this context, I believe we can achieve our ambition.

The country needs tremendous amounts of new homes, infrastructure, schools, and healthcare facilities. If we pull together and work as a team, I have every confidence that we’ll turn those aspirations to reality.

Sir James has worked for the Wates Group since 1983 and became Chairman in 2013. Sir James is also Chairman of the CBI Construction Council, Co-chair of Infrastructure Exports: UK, and Chairman of the BRE (Building Research Establishment) Trust, having served as President of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), Chairman of the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), and Co-chair of Build UK. In 2012 he was awarded the CBE and in 2019 was knighted for services to business and to charity.