On Saturday, January 11, the Northern Ireland Assembly returned to work at Stormont following a three-years hiatus. The timing of the decision to return to devolved government was an opportune one for Mark Spence as he began his tenure as Assistant Director of the Construction Employers Federation.
New year, new decade, new government finally in place – now would appear to be the perfect time to give voice to the feelings and frustrations of a construction industry that’s been largely left to fend for itself. “Obviously, we’re delighted to see the Assembly back. Not only have we had no ministers and no decisions, but also a lack of committees, with a lot of expenditure not properly scrutinized. There have been a few issues that the audit office and others have highlighted, Mark observes.
“Construction is in many ways a barometer for the economy. We have felt the cold draught here from private investors nervous about investing in Northern Ireland with Brexit undecided. Anything being built now was probably decided three, four, five years ago. There’s an upturn now, and although many members have faced significant pressures over the last three difficult years, the companies that have streamlined and adapted have come out the other side stronger, more efficient and effective.”
So what are the areas of most concern to CEF members? “Probably one of the key agenda items would be the need for an improvement in procurement. Rather than having a large number of individual bodies, each looking after their own patch, we could have a centralised procurement that draws in all the good expertise that there undoubtedly is, pulling that together rather than the patchwork quilt we currently have. Northern Ireland’s not a big place, and if Birmingham can be run by roughly 100 councillors, we certainly don’t need seven, eight, or nine procurement divisions to run the place.”
Unwieldly, overly-bureaucratic, with a pedestrian decision-making process, the current system quite clearly doesn’t work. “Centralisation would also speed up the process, because a lot of procurements over the last three years have started, stalled, been challenged, cancelled, started again. Do it once, do it right, and the industry will work with the clients.
“We don’t compare favourably with our friends in Scotland and England in terms of procurement timescales and value for money, and yet we’re a smaller government area. Procurement should be about collaboration, but it’s far too often about them and us. For the good of everyone we would be calling for more of a partnership, more centralised control over procurement, streamlining the policies and greater understanding. Our members are very keen to engage with all the right departments to make sure that they can learn lessons…that we can learn lessons together.”