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Farmer response bats ball back into industry's court

Anyone hoping for a radical government response to Mark Farmer’s industry review will have been left disappointed today. 

Nine months after the high-profile consultant unveiled his Modernise or Die report, the government has finally got round to responding.

Thumbing through ministers’ eight-page reply to Mr Farmer’s recommendations, plenty of familiar themes crop up: CITB reform, focus on a digital future, boosting the sector’s image, modular housing.

There are plenty of warm words. In a separate letter to the Construction Leadership Council’s co-chair Andrew Wolstenholme, ministers flag the government has already been incorporating Mr Farmer’s recommendations into policy; an example would be the retention of the CITB, while admitting it needs reform.

And it said the Farmer Review “influenced” the decision to back measures in the Housing White Paper to grow the country’s housing stock.

A lack of radical response is unsurprising. The Tories were unlikely to reveal a magic money tree to offer a direct financial boost to the industry.

The timing of the report’s release is interesting though.

Earlier this week transport secretary Chris Grayling came under fire for handing out chunky HS2 contracts to a consortium including troubled Carillion.

The government is no doubt keen to show it is doing its best to support the industry it will rely on to build vital infrastructure – such as HS2.

It also comes after eyebrows were raised earlier this year when construction did not feature on a list of priority industries for government in the wake of Brexit.

In this respect the sector can take heart that elected officials have acknowledged the vast majority of Mr Farmer’s recommendations, if not much more.

Speaking to Mark Farmer today, he sounded upbeat about the government’s response and said there was never going to be a “big bang” response. “This is about a journey,” he said. “And the government has committed to assisting the industry on that journey.” 

The only dismissal, at least in the short term, comes over the call to introduce a charge on construction industry clients to help skills and innovation funding. Ministers argue such a charge could “risk damaging developer confidence” and increase costs.

But overall it is telling that the first line in the response to the first recommendation is a call for the industry to “step up” to the challenges flagged in Modernise or Die.

The message is clear: yes, the government can provide the platform for the industry to adapt and future-proof itself. But ultimately, it has to be the construction sector itself that embraces the brave new world and re-thinks the way things operate.

Industry leaders, it’s over to you.

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