Anything but play

After the government announced measures to improve collaboration with industry, minimise greenhouse gas emissions and support the UK recovery from Covid-19, Hywel Davies considers the likely impact

On 8 December, the government, in partnership with the Construction Leadership Council, launched The Construction Playbook. Billed as a means to drive construction-sector productivity and innovation, and ‘deliver public sector works in a more modern and efficient way’, it sets out to capture commercial best practices and deliver sector specific reforms.

It outlines government’s expectations of how public contracting authorities and their suppliers, throughout the supply chain, should engage with each other to deliver public sector works faster, better, greener and more digitally.

The playbook sets out 14 key policies, detailing how government should assess, procure and deliver public works projects and programmes. It is supported by the simultaneous issue of a new Procurement Policy Note, which all central government departments and their arms’ length bodies are mandated to follow on a ‘comply or explain’ basis. The new arrangements will be assured through existing governance arrangements, including Cabinet Office spending controls.

The plans feature several ‘green initiatives’, including whole-life carbon assessments to understand and minimise the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions footprint of projects. Other measures seek to minimise resource and energy use, cut waste and increase biodiversity.

All contracting authorities must develop an overarching sustainability framework, with systems and processes ‘to ensure their projects and programmes deliver on the targets set’. They should also set out how they will achieve net-zero GHG emissions by, or ahead of, 2050 for their entire estate or infrastructure portfolio. Crucially, and challengingly, that includes their existing buildings and assets.

There is a clear call for industry to learn from the Grenfell Tower tragedy and for the construction sector to put safety at the heart of everything it does

The aim is to harness the collective buying power of the public sector to drive change in the delivery of public works, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and achieve sustainable outcomes.

Digitalisation is prominent in the announcement, too. It seeks to embed digital technologies, including the adoption of the UK BIM Framework to standardise the approach to generating, classifying and exchanging data, all in a security-minded way. The plan supports adoption of modern methods of construction and digital ways of working as it seeks harmonisation, digitalisation and rationalisation across projects and programmes, and increased use of standard products and components.

In introductory remarks to the playbook, government chief commercial officer Gareth Rhys Williams and chief executive of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority Nick Smallwood emphasise the need for industry to support it. They call for ‘continuous improvement in building and workplace safety, cost, speed and quality of delivery, greater sharing of better data, investment in training the future workforce through upskilling and apprenticeships, and adoption of the UK BIM Framework’.

They describe the playbook as a ‘compact’ between government and industry on future working arrangements. ‘Only by acting together and aligning our efforts can we achieve enduring reform: improving the public works we deliver, meeting the everyday needs of the people that use them, and providing value for money for the taxpayer.’

It is perhaps unfortunate that such a serious and far-reaching drive to reform public sector procurement is called a ‘playbook’, with the connotations that brings. It is anything but playful, with phrases such as ‘comply or explain’ and ‘mandated’ alongside softer language about ‘providing greater certainty to industry through long term plans’, ‘building positive relationships’, and ‘incentivising industry to innovate by focusing on outcomes’.

To underline the serious intent, Cabinet Office Minister Lord Agnew, said: ‘As the largest construction sector customer, government is in an ideal position to ensure that the industry is productive, professional and delivers value for money for taxpayers.’

There is also a clear call for industry to learn lessons from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, and for the construction sector to ‘put safety at the heart of everything it does’.

There is a clear and serious intent to The Construction Playbook. It may not be appropriate to put it under your Christmas tree, but perhaps serious readers of the Journal should unwrap it early in the new year and familiarise themselves with the content, especially if you are to work with the public sector in the months and years ahead.