“We call for more wine without investing in the vineyard”: why we should care more about construction skills

Not enough of these fellas. Image: Getty.

On the 19 February 1879, construction began on Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building. On 28 July 1923, it was the turn of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge.

These dates are recalled, because people mark such beginnings. We make them visible. Ribbon-cutting, sod-turning, plaque-mounting – ways to say to stakeholders, this starts now: it will be money well spent. This project will move us forward.

We make growth visible too. We count cranes in year-quarters, with September’s report showing a record-breaking five hundred plus propping up the skies of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane alone.

Yet what of the critical human component to all projects – skills? How do we mark the achievement of acquiring a workforce able to deliver some of the most complex infrastructure projects in the world? What visible measures do we have to show there is present-day skills capacity or that we will meet future demand?

The Consult Australia 2016 Skills Survey is one such tool – but the fluctuations it shows suggest more visible indicators are needed at a much greater frequency. It shows more than two thirds (69 per cent) of large consulting firms working in the built environment now express concern over a nationwide skills shortage, compared to 8 per cent just two years ago. Over half of all large firms are struggling to recruit civil, traffic, and structural engineers too, rising to 75 per cent and 81 per  cent in New South Wales and Victoria respectively.

The reality is that, whilst we marvel, applaud and celebrate the visible in the built environment, we often neglect the invisible, and fail to plan for future skills demand. We call for more wine without investing in the vineyard.

The survey also shows it is currently taking firms two years to fill mid-level roles compared to approximately two months in 2014. Only 46 per cent of large, medium and small firms are very optimistic they will find the skills to compete over the next three years.

This gloom is in part caused by boom – this year, economic growth in New South Wales and Victoria, is estimated to be 6.1 per cent and 6.4 per cent respectively. Heavy investment in public infrastructure and construction has led to demand outstripping supply which in the short-term is resolved by recruiting migrants on Section 457 visas. Collectively, these skilled professionals maintain Australia’s economic growth. Individually, they contribute spend whilst adding social, cultural and educational value.

Longer term the solution is different. Most state governments have joined Infrastructure Australia in producing long-term infrastructure plans, critical for the alleviation of rollercoaster fluctuations in supply and demand.

It is only by mapping out predicted growth and anticipated projects, by undertaking gap analyses and working backwards from future date 10, 20, or 30 years from now, that there can be an appreciation of the scale of the challenges and opportunities ahead, and an appropriate strategy can be developed. To paraphrase ice-hockey player Wayne Gretzky, it is about skating to where the puck is going not to where it has been.

Without a long-term strategy, debate around Section 457 visas will continue to be politicised, zooming in on short-term retrospective data, when it needs to zoom out, be contextualised and part of a long-term conversation about what skills Australia needs to sustain economic growth.


Challenges around gender imbalance, with most firms in the Consult Australia survey employing less than a third (29 per cent) of women, would continue without targets in place to ensure cities are shaped by both genders for both genders.

There would be no framework for state or territory plans to feed into as per the national “Infrastructure Skills Plan”, referenced in the Infrastructure Australia Plan released earlier this year.

Yet as with all long-term plans, it is essential to provide short-term visible outcomes to maintain strategic direction, and aid those, notably politicians and shareholders, who work in shorter cycles.

This is why it is critical there is a concerted effort to make visible the people-part of built-environment projects. Promote the foundation stone but promote too graduates of the foundation course who laid it; gather local and national media for sod-turning but gather more for corner-turning as a company hits the 50 per cent female recruitment mark; unveil a plaque that on this day this project began, but also unveil your team, the people who will make it happen and the challenges faced to bring them together.

Make skills visible, make scarcity or abundance known – and help push for a strategic approach to future skills development in Australia.

Kevin Keith works for built environment body Consult Australia. The 2016 Consult Australia Skills Survey is available here. He tweets as @KevKeith.

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.