“People don’t trust each other.”
That was the way Jamie Ratcliff, assistant director at the Greater London Authority, chose to describe the construction industry to the House of Lords’ offsite inquiry last week.
It was a cold assessment, but one that even the most strident champion of the sector would struggle to disagree with.
“To make this work, you have to trust each other and work together at an early stage. You need to commit to it, depend on your partners and work with them,” he added.
“For whatever reason, culturally lots of people in construction find that very difficult.”
But why is there a culture of distrust in the construction business?
Well, the first thing to point out is that this lack of trust is by no means all-encompassing.
There are many business relationships in our sector that have been run on a trust basis for decades, even centuries.
However, the peaks and troughs in activity that occur, even over the course of a single project, lead to countless short-term transactions and partnerships.
This is multiplied significantly due to the fact that many projects involve a huge supply chain.
In some cases a main contractor on a large scheme barely knows all the different subcontractors on site, let alone establishes a relationship with them.
Working with lots of people you don’t know on a short-term basis can lead to a culture of distrust.
Add in high-risk, razor-thin margins and it seems inevitable.
So should we just accept it?
That would represent a very dangerous position, because it threatens to leave contractors isolated should the market shift.
If an alternative approach to contracting, such as offsite, gains serious traction, it is unlikely clients will persist with their regular contractors – we know the GLA won’t.
To see what could happen, you only have to look at other sectors where technology has been harnessed to create a business model in which the most credible vendors are validated and the least trustworthy exposed.
It’s a worn-out example, but once you’ve used Uber it’s difficult to remember a time when you couldn’t check out and review taxi drivers in your area and make a decision based on that.
It’s those ideas we need to help destroy the culture of distrust before it’s too late.