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'If a big client tests its suppliers on such qualities as leadership, it can't be long before they tell them when to go to the toilet and how to knot their ties'

Fair play (part 1)

WE MIGHT be entering the new millennium but it's reassuring to see that some things never change. The old resentments and suspicions which for so long characterised the British construction industry have survived millennium meltdown intact.

I see, for example, that a group of steel-decking suppliers is cutting up rough over the traditional contractors' habit of holding retentions.

Some of them, probably quite rightly, take exception to being owed up to half a million quid by contractors who claim to be guarding themselves against the risk of defects.

There's nothing new in this. Generally, main contractors have been tempted to abuse the retentions system and subbies have - well, subbies have always gone bust.

While some people consider this to be a deplorable injustice that should not be tolerated in the 21st century, others take the Darwinian view and see it as a process of natural selection.

Fair play (part 2)

CONTRACTORS, meanwhile, are having a whinge at their clients.

For what seems like decades, just about every big civil engineering contractor has been licking its lips over the promise of the mouth-watering £5 billion ex-British Rail buffet that is the West Coast Mainline upgrade.

Now some of the hopeful contractors are upset because Railtrack says it wants to stick with suppliers who have - literally - a track record in this kind of work.

The firms which are laughing are simply those that saw the rail boom comingwith privatisation and lost no time in making themselves attractive to the new client.

Those that were a bit slow off the mark now claim they aren't being treated fairly.

What a shame - because, with their keen sense of fair play these are, presumably, the contractors that don't hang on to retentions.

Still, theirs is a familiar complaint and one frequently voiced by bidders for Private Finance Initiative contracts: you spend tens of thousands working up a bid, only to see the job go to the usual suspects (who might also have spent tens of thousands working up a bid).

What the whingers arenow discovering is that these days it is all about cosying up to the client and getting preferred-contractor status and a nice, solid framework agreement.

So when the gravy train pulls out of the station, the prime contractors can alllean out of the carriage window and give the finger to all the losers left shivering on the platform.

Actually, I suspect that framework agreements can be a mixed blessing.

Being appointed as a supplier to a big client with half a billion to spend every year might look like a meal ticket at the time, but you'll soon discover that your client expects its pound of flesh in return.

BAA, that model construction client, has revealed that it intends to 'test' its suppliers regularly to make sure they come up to scratch.

But how far should a client go to enforce its standards? Should it be able to dictate how a supplier runs its business? Should it even decide how its client is to think?

If big clients start to test suppliers on such qualities as 'leadership', it cannot surely be long before they tell them when to go to the toilet and how to knot their ties.