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Signoff: David Taylor

Who do you think is the most important man in construction?

Who do you think is the most important man in construction? What a tantalising question – ideal for breaking the ice next time you find yourself stuck in a crowded lift.

Is it Stephen Timms, the construction minister? Probably not because he has to report to the boss – so is it Prime Minister Gordon Brown? Well, not any more because he’s got to take the broader view.
Ah, so it must be Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He’s the man with his hands on the purse strings and, after all, governments down the years have always used public sector infrastructure spending to regulate the economy. So it has got to be Mr Darling.

No it hasn’t.

In fact, I think the most important man in construction isn’t a man at all. I think it’s Margaret McLuty, 73, of Dollis Hill, north London.

You’ve heard of chaos theory, haven’t you? That’s the one which holds that a system is sensitive to minor perturbations which through their exponential growth can influence the entire set-up. Or something like that.

You’ll probably know it better as the theory that a butterfly fluttering somewhere in China can set in train a reaction that produces a devastating hurricane in the Caribbean. I always thought there was something a bit off about those damned Chinese butterflies – and now we know.

Well anyway, Mrs McLuty is a sort of butterfly who, at eight o’clock last Friday morning formed what quickly became a long queue outside her local branch of the Northern Rock.

On Thursday night Mrs McLuty had heard Northern Rock chief executive Adam Applegarth on the wireless, patiently explaining why he had gone cap in hand to the Bank of England and why there was absolutely nothing to worry about.

But Mrs McLuty heard “Adam” and “Apple-something” and remembered what had happened in the Garden of Eden.

At that precise moment – though nobody could have known it – the future of the UK economy and its biggest industry, construction, was in the hands of Mrs McLuty. She made herself a cup of decaff, set the alarm clock and resolved to get up early and withdraw her savings forthwith.

Mrs McLuty’s actions might have been ill-advised. Yes, maybe she did panic. But once she has arrived on the steps of her local branch the chain reaction was underway.

A week later and things look a bit calmer. Mrs McLuty now has £30,000-worth of premium bonds and the Northern Rock’s share price is on the rise. But the financial markets have been shaken. House price inflation has stalled, mortgages are harder to secure and economic growth might have stopped altogether.

Alistair Darling certainly looks powerful, stepping in to guarantee Northern Rock’s investors all – not just part – of their money back. But in fact he panicked just like everybody else. What’s to stop a bank taking foolish risks in future if it thinks that Mr Darling will bail it out?

The past decade and a half has been good for construction, but chillier times could be just around the corner. Oh Mrs McLuty, what have you done?

Just a final thought – if life does get tougher for construction, what will happen to our new-found fondness for teamwork? It’s easy to be magnanimous and inclusive when you’re on the up and it’s surely no coincidence that the whole Rethinking Construction bandwagon has trundled harmoniously on through a period of sustained growth and prosperity.

It would be interesting, to say the least, to see how well open-book partnering, framework contracts and integrated team-working operate when the work starts to dry up.