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Summit's missing link


John Prescott turned up.So did architects, planners, surveyors and property experts.But no main contractors put in an appearance at the Government's Delivering Sustainable Communities Summit. Jon Fletcher reports

DELIVERABLE. Sustainable.Community.Why is the language of regeneration so indigestible? Perhaps that's why contractors failed to show up at the Delivering Sustainable Communities Summit in Manchester last week.

After all, building is about bricks and mortar. It's gritty and it's dirty and it has nothing at all to do with listening to politicians roll out cliches about neighbourhood empowerment and civic renewal.Let the civil servants work out what they want on their own.

As Construction Confederation chief executive Stephen Ratcliffe said: 'Contractors will just build what they're asked to build.'

Still, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors went along.The Royal Institute of British Architects, the British Property Federation and the Royal Town Planning Institute even got involved.

And the Construction Confederation? Well, no.

Mr Ratcliffe explained: 'We had invitations and did advertise the event but we get an invitation to a conference virtually every day.'

Perhaps he is right when he argues that the summit was a talking shop for Government rather than an opportunity to generate business.Mr Ratcliffe said that, for conferences to be attractive to builders, there really has to be real commercial value.

But if it was this simple, why did almost every other building profession take such an interest?

There is a clear link between regeneration and developers.Over and over again last week everyone from local councillors to Government ministers were stressing the role private money must play in regeneration.

The British Property Federation used the summit to launch a report that was half a critique of the Government, half a developer's wish list.The event was attended by senior management from most of the country's big-name developers.For business development managers, it was the stuff that dreams are made of.Where developers dare to tread, contractors should surely follow.

The firms behind the BPF report include Hammerson, Grosvenor, Land Securities, Prudential, Argent, Morley and Quintain.These are not traditional house builders.They are big firms that invest big money in big, mixed-use projects.

The word 'communities' in the summit title was no accident: the days of building swathes of identikit houses on picket fence estates.Cheap and nasty is out, high density and mixed use is in.

Even John Prescott's much vaunted £60,000-ish house comes with an emphasis on design that led the Deputy Prime Minister to lambast a house builder who told him cheap houses could only be delivered 'in straight lines' Housing estates without schools, hospitals, arts centres or public spaces, particularly when built specifically for low-income families, are only a small step away from slums. After 10 years and a splash of spray paint politicians would be picking their way through used needles and abandoned mattresses searching vainly for lost and broken promises.

As Mr Prescott said in his foreword to the People, Places and Prosperity Plan, launched at last week's summit: 'Our aim is to create communities that will stand the test of time; and places where people want to live.'

This is excellent news for contractors and a challenge to conventional house builders, with whom Mr Prescott has an already strained relationship.

Do traditional house builders have the skills to deal with complex, bespoke schemes, particularly on brownfield sites where there may be land remediation or listed buildings to deal with? The likes of Barratt and Berkeley are increasingly contracting out this sort of work to main contractors.

Last week Sir Stuart Lipton, chairman of developer Stanhope, said: 'Housing is a business that is 20 years out of date.House builders would rather control their land values and land release.'

Developers like Stanhope, better known for office blocks and shopping centres, are being drawn into regeneration deals, often allied to Government agencies like English Partnerships. Of course, an emphasis on affordability and the sheer practicality of using standard designs for massive schemes means there is still a market for more traditional housing. But countering this agencies like the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment are demanding better design, while off-site and modular construction methods are allowing contractors to deliver less conventional projects quickly and in some cases, cheaply.

Steve Atkins, a development manager with Land Securities, was quick to sing the praises of a Lovell site he visited while in Manchester that is using prefabricated components. He said: 'They are providing contemporary designs with a crisp and modern appearance that will be acceptable to the broader market.'

But he was astounded at the failure of contractors to buy into the summit: 'It's extraordinary that they are not here.This is a fantastic opportunity for them.'

If evidence of contractors'absence not just from the summit but the wider regeneration agenda were needed, the BPF report provides it. Spot the missing link in this sentence: 'The BPF sought advice from the Government, Regional Development Agencies, county councils, local authorities, and its own private sector members - developers, institutions, fund managers, investment banks, agents, lawyers, accountants, consultants and project managers.'

So the authors asked for advice from everyone conceivably involved in providing sustainable communities, apart from the people that will actually build them.

It's not as though contractors don't have anything to offer. Builders are becoming experts on core sustainability issues such as energy efficiency and disabled access.The prevalence of partnering agreements means many firms have first-hand experience of working with several public and private bodies at once.

Contractors are at the front line when it comes to reducing cost, saving time and building to last.The use of two-stage tenders, the expansion of the Private Finance Initiative and other programmes like ProCure 21 and Lift have seen the construction industry take greater responsibility for design and planning.And the list goes on.

Quite apart from the skills and expertise contractors have to offer, it seems inconceivable that such a core part of the wider building profession should be sidelined at a time when there is so much talk of what the Government calls 'cross-occupational working' Take the new Academy for Sustainable Communities as an example. Last April Sir John Egan completed a review of the skills required to deliver Mr Prescott's sustainable communities vision. Sir John argued for a new national body that would co-ordinate and integrate the different professions engaged in urban development.

Last week, Mr Prescott responded by announcing the creation of a new 'Academy for Sustainable Communities', to be based in Leeds.The leaflet produced to explain the role of the academy is thin on detail but its opening gambit reads: 'We must work together to drive up standards of planning, design and maintenance of all communities.'Again, no mention of how these communities will be built.

By failing to engage with the sustainable communities agenda, contractors may be missing out on a massive opportunity.Events like the Manchester summit provide an ideal opportunity to lobby for the sort of developments that not only meet political objectives, but also stimulate and yield dividends for the building industry.

It doesn't necessarily matter whether this is achieved through highlighting the potential of off-site construction to deliver mass affordable housing, backing the movement for more complex, mixed-use development or dealing with skills shortages and encouraging professional co-operation.

Policy drives development and development drives construction. It is vital that contractors get involved and are seen to get involved. It's certainly worth sitting through the odd speech for.

The Government declares war on construction waste

THE Government has set a busy schedule this year for a series of key fast-track initiatives to kick-start the sustainable communities plan.

Most far-reaching for construction is work already under way to set a single national standard for sustainable buildings.

A code of practice is being drawn up by a working party of Government officials, developers and manufacturers who will lay down strict national performance standards for all housing and public buildings in the country.

Michael Ankers, chief executive of the Construction Products Association and a member of the working group, said: 'It is envisaged that the code will ultimately form the basis for an overhaul of the Building Regulations.'

Better energy performance and conservation of water in buildings is being looked at, along with a requirement to cut to zero the waste generated during construction from levels estimated to run as high as 30 per cent.

The working party is looking to achieve the ambitious 'nil waste to landfill objective' through a series of staged targets.A spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said:

'Builders using the code will differentiate themselves as builders of quality and buildings will be better built with lower running costs.'

An industry consultation document, expected to be published in the spring, will also lay down minimum targets for using managed source and reclaimed timber. Developers like Slough Estates, Stanhope and house builder Barratt make up the working party.

The Government menu also aims for more materials to be used that are recyclable and building designs that allow easy maintenance and resist climate change.The first projects to incorporate elements of the new code are expected to go ahead in Thames Gateway ready for a national roll-out by early next year.

Meanwhile, developers and contractors will be formally invited to prequalify to build the first £60,000 affordable home demonstration development in March.