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Construction at the heart of communities

Tom Fitzpatrick

It’s rare you hear of praise from the public about the way construction firms go about their business.

Despite being an industry worth more than £120bn annually, construction companies aren’t household names (with the exception, perhaps, of Carillion).

Would you be confident asking a group of people on the street to name a contractor, an engineer or an architect? Aside from the hoarding they may have just passed, or the relative who may work for a company in the sector, brand identity isn’t strong in this industry.

That’s for a plethora of reasons, not least the often private nature of the people leading these businesses, as well as the sector being relatively media-shy.

It’s also, sadly, down to the public’s perception of the industry and a general shrugging of the shoulders when it comes to infrastructure.

Grenfell exposed an ongoing disconnect between the companies building social and economic infrastructure and the communities in which they are working.

To that end, we launched a community engagement award this year and this week I watched on as our industry judges ran the rule over the inaugural finalists.

The work they’re carrying out showed communities and people being put first. Yes, this is partly contractual, but without showing the passion of the people in the room it’s hard to demonstrate how much these people cared.

Putting people at the heart of projects is clearly happening and better engagement is helping to demonstrate what this industry is all about.

So why the disconnect? Are isolated pockets of best practice not filtering through companies? Are these people and projects a minority?

Consider BCM Construction, taking cable drums and sleepers and turning them into tables and benches for schools, while volunteering their time to introduce kids to the world of construction.

Or Engie’s project Love and Tolerance, aiming to promote diversity and encouraging school children to promote positive values by creating art which is then showcased on site hoardings.

Farrans Construction and Victor Buyck worked hand-in-hand with Sunderland City Council to identify and tackle societal needs, bringing apprentices to full-time employment and providing a benchmark for community engagement under the council’s future procurement.

Graham took time before tendering to listen to students, staff, teachers and businesses and built a school campus that reflects their concerns and needs (including a slide for pupils to leave by at the end of the day).

Jackson Civil Engineering approached its client to understand what could be done beyond its contractual terms, learning how to engage children in care and introduce them to construction through an initiative it wants to roll out across the business.

How about Kier, asking its future leaders to champion community engagement by working with the families of armed forces to fundraise, volunteer and refurbish a welfare centre as part of its work at Baker Barracks.

Or Kier’s team working on the Garnock Community Campus, which recognised residents’ concerns about their lifestyles being affected by the close proximity of a new school, so changed the entire layout to minimise disruption while working to find new recruits into both construction and the armed forces.

And Wates’ work at the Kirkstall Forge development, where it built an onsite training facility for adult learners and provided employment opportunities to help tackle local unemployment rates.

Listening in to this year’s shortlisted entries over the past two days, I was struck by an emerging maturity among construction firms, both in leading clients to set higher aspirations for their projects and their increasing focus on people.

There’s an awful lot of good work being done that we’ll be writing about so other companies can learn from our shortlisted entrants and winners.

It’s particularly pleasing to hear people citing CN’s campaigning around mental health and diversity as a catalyst for change within their own businesses.

But sadly, on this occasion flattery won’t get you everywhere. Our judges are the people who decide the winners to be revealed on 12 July. 

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