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Treasury still has questions to answer over prime contracts

The Treasury shows no signs of backing down in its quest for the perfect one-size-fits-all contract, despite abundant evidence that no such thing exists. In its rejection of evidence to that effect from the broadest possible cross-section of the building professions, it is beginning to look as though an obsessional attitude towards building procurement is overruling experience and judgement. If the arguments being put by the Construction Industry Council, the riba et al are mistaken, then it should be possible for the mandarins to rebut them line by line. The man from Whitehall may know best, but we are entitled to ask for evidence.

Perhaps it is the traumatic experience of attempting to redevelop its own premises using the Private Finance Initiative which has made the Treasury so jumpy. Never entirely convinced that pfi is necessarily in the long- term public interest, the department nevertheless jumped in feet first when the opportunity arose. As with its attitude to the Lottery, Treasury thinking seemed overwhelmingly concerned with ensuring that all liabilities were covered. What this means is massive fees for accountants and lawyers and other consultants, and diminishing returns for the people actually designing and constructing the buildings. The financial arrangements have nothing to do with the prime purpose, the real prime contract, of any building: to enable appropriate activity within a beneficial environment.

One of the big problems about design-and-build, prime contract, call it what you will, is the belief on the part of some clients that building at breakneck speed represents efficiency, when it probably reflects client inertia or reluctance to take decisions about building early enough. The result is a design process which is conducted too quickly, without the appropriate research, and without regard to the public impact of the built result. This is exactly the opposite of what the Egan philosophy represents, since Egan is very much in favour of front-loading the construction effort with well-researched design, reaping the benefits of long-term partnering. Some joined-up thinking on this matter is urgently required.

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