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How far we have come in 50 years


During Elizabeth II's reign the face of the UK's construction industry has changed dramatically, writes John D Allen

AS ONE looks back over what are conventionally called 50 glorious years, the situation in the UK's construction industry was anything but glorious when Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne.

At that time, the nation was still recovering from the privations of the war. Rationing continued until the 1950s and most building required a licence from the Ministry of Public Building and Works. Public investment was restricted by stringent controls on capital spending.

Construction News didn't come into being until 1963/64, at a time when the first great post-war construction boom was gathering momentum. Prior to that, its predecessor, Labour News, thrived on handouts from the Ministry of Transport announcing authorisations of road and bridge works. But, as the editor in those days used to say, authorisation is not expenditure.

As restrictions were eased, the workload expanded into power generation - both thermal and nuclear - oil and gas exploration, motorway construction, great tunnels and bridges crossing the estuaries. With that, Construction News grew, from 24 pages in the 1950s and 1960s to 96 or more in the 1980s. Construction was booming but the economic strains on the industry led to widespread dissatisfaction with its performance.

The findings of a Banwell Committee report in 1964 strike a familiar note: 'Design and construction are no longer two separate fields, and there are occasions on which the main contractor should join the team at an early stage.'

It was another 30 years before the next reform initiative was launched - Sir Michael Latham's Constructing the Team. He recommended wider adoption of the New Engineering Contract, which indeed has happened. But the industry has gone its own way and developed contractual methods appropriate to the nature of the work in hand.

Management contracting, construction management and supply chain management have all come into being, with varying degrees of success. However the jobs are managed, it doesn't change the underlying nature of the contracting industry, which has always been a marginal business surviving on a narrow line between profit and loss.

What is the difference between the industry of the 1950s and the beginning of the 21st century? To take one example, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link is creating the country's first high-speed railway and will promote the expansion of rail traffic into the industrial heartlands of the Midlands and the North. It is also generating major economic gains in the shape of the King's Cross Partnership and the new town growing up at Ebbsfleet on the Thames Estuary. This is made possible by the junction of public and private resources, a concept quite foreign to the restrictive atmosphere of the 1950s.

So, yes, there have been great changes over the years:

the inquiries have had their say in Rethinking Construction but in the end the new approaches to contracting practice arise in the heat of practical experience.

One welcome shift is the accent on respect for people and sustainable development. The industry is even taking an interest in the World Summit on Sustainable Development being held in South Africa this year. Both from the viewpoint of location and subject, that would have been unthinkable in the days when the young Princess Elizabeth was summoned from Kenya to begin the long reign now being celebrated by her Golden Jubilee.

John D Allen is a former editor of Construction News