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Building Tomorrow: The Future of the UK’s Construction Sector

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Chartered Institute of Building

7 min read Partner content

If the UK is to achieve net zero and deliver the homes, schools, hospitals, and roads that the nation needs then the built environment sector will have to play a critical role. PoliticsHome met up with Sandi Rhys Jones, the new President of the Chartered Institute of Building, to learn more about her vision for an industry that is putting creativity and collaboration front and centre.

Sandi Rhys Jones OBE
Sandi Rhys Jones OBE

Sandi Rhys Jones OBE has spent her career passionately advocating the role that professionals working in the built environment can play in helping meet the challenges that the nation faces.

Now, as she takes the reins as President of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), she will find herself at the heart of public policy debates about how we can ensure the sector maximises its contribution to delivering on key policies relating to net zero, housing supply, and infrastructure.

It is clear as we speak that Rhys Jones regards the role of built environment professionals in the broadest terms, not simply through the narrow lens of qualifications and chartered status. Indeed, when she describes the profession she regularly reaches for language that focuses not on the technical but instead stresses the wonder that comes from transforming places.

“We have lost the magic of what we do,” she tells PoliticsHome. “We need to bring that magic back.”

Rhys Jones’ vision of a sector that can use imagination, creativity, and insight to deliver transformational change comes across frequently during our conversation. Whilst she does address the very practical challenges that the sector faces, she often returns to the need for a culture shift that places humanity and openness at the core of professional practice.

When Rhys Jones talks about the role and contribution of the built environment sector, there is an obvious passion and a belief in the positive contribution that CIOB members play in shaping our society. However, there is also an acknowledgement that the sector must do more to ensure that it is better understood by policymakers.

“Ultimately, I want the debate about the built environment to take place in a bigger room,” she tells PoliticsHome, describing her vision for her Presidential year. “We need to be more visible and audible as an industry but we also need stability and consistency within Government. Society faces a range of major challenges and built environment professionals can be the problem solvers but we can’t do it alone.”

However, Rhys Jones acknowledges that to be an effective partner of government and others, the sector first needs to develop its own ability to place collaboration at the heart of its practice.

That collaboration will be essential if the built environment sector is to address the challenges that the profession faces. With an ageing workforce, growing skills gaps, challenges to deliver net zero, and a focus on quality and safety, the need for fresh approaches and new thinking has never been greater.

“We should be proud of what we do and we need to be in the room to discuss how best to do it with the right players,” she says. “It is a broad church. When we have different disciplines together in one room, that generates creative and practical solutions.”

Rhys Jones is optimistic that the wider industry is on a journey that is not only changing the way it sees itself but also how it engages and collaborates with others. And at the centre of that shift is a conviction that there is a common goal that all partners are focused on achieving.

“We are all in this for the same reason,” she tells PoliticsHome. “The client wants a project done that will deliver a set of objectives. A contractor wants to do the job in a reasonable time and make a reasonable profit. But to make it work, you need to have all of the different interests engaged at the earliest possible stage. The CIOB Client Guide published earlier this year is an important step forward.”

But as the sector increasingly looks outward and seeks to be a strategic as well as a delivery partner of government, Rhys Jones would like to see other partners stepping forward to engage in dialogue that can deliver better outcomes for society.

That will demand political leadership that provides clarity and consistency. She is positive about the way that new devolved structures are providing effective mechanisms for engagement in cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool and would like to see similar clarity at a national level.

Ultimately, I want the debate about the built environment to take place in a bigger room

“We need clear points of contact,” she explains. “We are forever playing catch up. It is back to having the right people in the room. We have worked hard to create a single representative voice for the sector. It would be good to have a similarly clear focus for engagement at a policy level. The revolving door of housing ministers, there were six in a 12-month period, is unhelpful and definitely slows down progress, and a dedicated minister or even Secretary of State for construction would also be welcomed.”

It is clear as we speak that what underpins Rhys Jones’s conviction is a belief that this is a sector that is not static, but one which continues to focus on improving how it operates to make the biggest difference.  

Part of that dynamism will be driven by a new generation of professionals that will help plug the gaps that we know will grow as older staff retire. The skills gap is a challenge to everyone with an interest in the built environment, but Rhys Jones believes that the positive role the sector can play in addressing some of the biggest challenges humanity faces represents an opportunity to attract people into the profession.   

“Many younger people feel passionate about sustainability and climate change,” she explains. “We need to present work in the built environment as part of the solution to climate change rather than ‘one of the bad guys.’ We need to tap into what people really care about and say, ‘look, this is what we can do’. It’s tough though when the current apprenticeship system isn’t working for a diverse enough cohort of people and is still seen as the poor relation to a university degree. A review of apprenticeships is needed, as until they’re promoted to school leavers as respectable career paths on par with going to university, the worker shortages so many sectors face will continue to cause problems.”

It is clear that Rhys Jones sees the skillsets required by future industry leaders as going far beyond the technical skills that have traditionally characterised the industry. Instead, her vision is of a profession that is creative, outward-looking, and inclusive. It is of a built environment sector that sees relationships and collaboration, not as a ‘nice to have’, but rather as the bedrock on which everything else is developed.

The CIOB believes that everyone involved in the design, construction and maintenance process – not just the old style traditional professions – bears some responsibility for quality and competence. This broad church approach, embracing apprenticeships and the new TechCIOB grade, is reflected in the CIOB concept of Modern Professionalism.

“Modern professionals need to keep developing and maintain their curiosity,” she says. “We can help solve practical problems. We should use the confidence of knowing that we can deliver projects that enhance the built environment, to challenge when we see that things are not right, and be ready to be challenged ourselves. There’s more that can be done however to drive up modern professionalism and incentivise those working in the construction sector to live the values. For example, public procurement processes recognising members of professional bodies such as CIOB, as ethical and competent professionals, would encourage more people and businesses to gain accreditation and in turn drive up standards by way of quality, safety and ethics."

The CIOB’s underpinning philosophy is to improve the quality of life, both for those using and for those creating the built environment. "Humanity is at the heart of all we do” she says, once again reiterating that collaboration within the industry, as well as more broadly is the key to success. “We need to knock on doors, encouraging others to open them and engage in constructive collaboration for the benefit of all. We have made a good start and are committed to building the relationships that will make a difference.”

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