The next PM should push forward a construction revolution to boost public sector productivity

Posted On: 
26th June 2019

The CEO of Mace, Mark Reynolds, says whether it is Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt that ends up in Number 10, they would do well to take note of the emerging evidence demonstrating the link between buildings and public sector productivity levels. 

All politicians should be committed to getting maximum returns from public construction projects. This is especially the case when you look at the huge sums invested in building our schools, hospitals and transport infrastructure.

Among the politicians keeping a close eye on the cost of at least one big construction project is Boris Johnson. A few weeks ago, Mr Johnson plunged the HS2 rail line into fresh uncertainty by saying he would review the project if he enters Downing Street. Aides of the man expected to be the next prime minister have said he wants to “see if there is value for money”.

The debate over HS2 will rage on but if Mr Johnson wants to get maximum value from public construction projects, he need not limit himself to the proposed rail line between London and the north of England. A new report for Mace by a former Bank of England economist has underlined how a ‘construction revolution’ in schools and hospitals could massively boost productivity levels in the public sector, with significant knock-on benefits for the UK economy. 

Researchers polled workers to establish the extent to which introducing new design, construction and operations approaches across the public sector could improve productivity. The results make for interesting reading for anybody interested in getting value for money from public construction projects. The polling found that if the UK’s 237,000 nurses in acute, elderly and general care were to work in new productivity-enhancing hospitals they would gain back a total of 25 million hours of time back every year. This equates to adding 13,500 full-time nurses to the NHS workforce. 

Meanwhile if the UK’s 545,000 teachers were to work in productivity-enhancing schools they would reclaim almost 50 million hours of working time back each year. This equates to roughly 2.3 hours every week for every teacher, which is a reduction of roughly 4% of their average working week. And if prison officers in England and Wales were to work in productivity-enhancing prisons they would reclaim a total of 2.3 million extra hours of working time a year.

To be fair to the public sector, productivity-enhancing design is not an entirely alien concept. Some public sector buildings have already started to realise the benefits. They include the Wrightington Hospital Orthaopaedic Centre where repeatable rooms and standardisation will decrease surgical downtime and give patients a better experience. But a few cutting-edge hospitals is not enough if the UK is to push up productivity levels to where they could be. 

The Government has taken some steps in the right direction. Last year the business secretary launched the Construction Sector Deal, bringing together the construction, manufacturing, energy and digital sectors to deliver innovative approaches to improve productivity in construction and accelerate a shift to building safer, healthier and more affordable places to live and learn that use less energy.

We still need to see greater engagement with the construction sector and faster adoption of new technology and processes.  Our report outlines a proposed model for product development that could be introduced to achieve maximum productivity benefits, based on the ‘Technology Readiness Levels’ originally introduced by NASA and adopted by the automotive and aviation sectors.  

We are also recommending that the government implements four measures to bring about a construction revolution, making productivity-enhancing buildings more standard across the public sector. Proposed measures include creating construction, engineering and manufacturing enterprise zones across the UK and overhauling the funding model for innovation in UK Construction. 

It comes as public sector productivity is mired in a pattern of low growth. The average annual growth rate of public services productivity between 1997 and 2016 was 0.2%. Furthermore, recent polling for Mace has showed that four in 10 public sector workers felt that they currently lose more than two hours a week to unproductive workplaces, while two in 10 public sector workers felt they lost more than four hours.

Whether Mr Johnson or Jeremy Hunt makes it into Downing Street, they would do well to take note of the emerging evidence demonstrating the link between buildings and public sector productivity levels. The next generation of construction technology and processes will change how we build hospitals, schools, offices and other parts of the built environment in the UK. In turn, this will mean that will mean doctors and nurses have more time to treat patients and teachers have more time focus on educating our children. But in order to make that a reality, we need a new mindset about innovation and product development in construction.