Over the past 20 years or so, I have found myself almost continuously on the client side of building contracts, large and small, domestic, corporate and charitable, in four different countries: Britain, France, Hong Kong and Japan. It is an activity in which optimism is rarely justified by experience: builders the world over tend habitually to under-estimate the time required for any task, to have trouble with supply chains, to misread architects’ plans, and to fall off ladders and take time off to recover
The most recent contract I’ve been involved with, in the hands of a team of native Yorkshire contractors and labourers, is by no means the biggest – I once supervised a £3 million office project in Tokyo – but it has been the most troublesome and frustrating. Just across the town, I have been able to watch daily progress on another site, which happens to be in the hands of a team of Poles. The contrast between the two has been very much in my mind these past few weeks, so I was intrigued by an article by Richard Ford in the Times headlined: Migrants in Britain – the official verdict. They work harder and earn more.’ ‘Immigrants have a better work ethic than the British,’ the piece goes on, ‘and are willing to work longer hours with less time off sick. Weekly mean earnings of migrants are also £60 higher than their UK counterparts.’
Well, I don’t want to go into too much detail about my current project, except to say that what was meant to be a five-month contract – a generous time allowance for a modest extension to an existing building – will certainly run to seven months, and it’s touch and go whether there will be light switches and door handles in place for the grand opening. The quality of workmanship is good, but it has been fuelled by astonishing quantities of tea, taken at regular and extended intervals throughout the day. The combination of the work-rate and the supply hold-ups has meant that almost nothing has ever happened on the day it was supposed to happen – and on many days, not much has happened at all. Perhaps it’s been no worse than your typical British building site – but just round the corner, day after day, we watch those Polish chaps going at it and marvel at the difference. ‘Most of them are here for 12 months to earn as much as they possibly can,’ the developer told me the other day. ‘They’ll work every hour we let them. They’re fantastic.’
Fantastic is how I would have described the crew that completed my16,000 sq ft office-and-trading-floor project in a Tokyo skyscraper in seven weeks flat: I remember the anguish of the exquisitely polite architect and militaristic site supervisors when they found a few blemishes and imperfections just before the finish. On smaller office projects in Hong Kong – where more than anywhere else, time is money – the Cantonese crew were anything but polite, but they were quick and they got the job right first time.
In rural France the pace was, as you might expect, a good deal more leisurely, and the chief problem was in trying to co-ordinate a large number of independent one-man-and-a-boy trades on site, including two categories of carpenter, one for structural work and one for detail. But contrary to ‘Year in Provence’ myth, they were diligent, honest, hard-working, congenial fellows once you got them on site, and they took great pride in their traditional craftsmanship. Most but not all of them took two hours for lunch every day (sensible people generally do) but none of them ever took a British-style tea-break.
Maybe the tea-break jibe is just a tired cliché, and it is all very well for sedentary softies like me to criticise manual workers for setting their own pace. But something has gone so fundamentally wrong in the British construction industry that we no longer have confidence in it to deliver any major public project on time or on budget. With five years to go, we’re braced for Olympic fiasco; as for Crossrail, many of us don’t expect to live long enough to see it opened. Projects which do finish well – St Pancras, opening on 14 November, for example – are rare exceptions to the general rule.
The problem, in truth, is a combination of management, workers, education and culture. The work ethic has atrophied, but so have the management skills, the training and apprenticeship processes, the disciplines, standards and expectations. The British building site is a microcosm of all sorts of deteriorating aspects of modern British society – and the migrant Poles now set us a shining example. Yet if you travelled to Poland 15 or 20 years ago, you saw none of this: demoralized by decades of Communist rule, it was a place which had forgotten pride of workmanship, where buildings were shoddy, where few people cared. If the Poles can transform themselves and their building skills in less than a generation, why can’t we?