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People in focus: Professor Peter Hansford reflects on his career

29 July 2016

peter-hansford

Peter Hansford has recently joined the School of Construction and Project Management as Professor of Construction and Infrastructure Policy. Employing his experience in the construction industry, Peter will teach undergraduates and postgraduates about the structure of, and the current issues facing, the construction industry, among other topics. In addition, he will build upon his expertise in this area through research focused upon the business models used in the construction industry. C&PM spoke to Peter about this potential research and his experience in government and the civil service.

What has prompted you to pursue research in this area?

The UK construction industry operates very sub-optimally. It operates at very, very low profit margins and, yet, there are many opportunities to modernise, become more efficient, and adopt innovation. However, it can’t do those things unless it has the money to do it, so it’s a chicken and egg situation. The industry needs to transform itself in order to become more efficient so that it can invest in itself. This brings us to the business model of the industry, which is an area of great interest to me.

It is surprising to see the construction industry operate this way when you hear of projects not attracting bids, despite there being such an abundance of construction companies.

It’s totally bizarre. If you compare construction with successful industry sectors such as aerospace, automotive, and pharmaceuticals, these sectors have a few very large players and, consequently, there are very few interfaces between organisations. These interfaces are where money is usually wasted. Also, these organisations are large enough to be able to attract the people they want, invest, and adopt innovation. I want to look at what other sectors do and have done, because some of them have transformed themselves. A classic example is the UK car industry. Forty years ago, it was on its knees, but now it’s world class. I also want to look at other countries such as Japan, Germany, and Spain. Spain, surprisingly, has a very effective construction industry which comprises three or four very large players, much larger than any of the British players who are operating successfully internationally. If we could replicate that here, I think we could transform construction.

You’ve come from working with the government. What did that involve and were there any specific projects you worked on?

My role as Chief Construction Adviser in the government is an interesting post: it sits partly in cabinet office and partly in what was The Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills (BIS). BIS has now merged with The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC). My job was to advise ministers on construction matters. I chaired the government’s Construction Board which was a body based in cabinet office through which all of the government departments that spend money on construction come together to share common policy with a view to becoming a better construction client. The board aimed to encourage consistency across projects by initiating learning between departments and to reduce costs. I wasn’t actually involved in individual projects per se, although I had peripheral involvement in projects like HS2, new prisons, and schools as part of my role on the Construction Board. So, a very interesting job, although quite frustrating at times because advisors can advise but politicians don’t have to listen!

It certainly sounds like a varied post which gave you a great deal of insight into construction across the country.

Yes, and a lot of insight into government and the way it works, which is not obvious from the outside. A problem in government is the splits in departments that are unseen to the outside world, such as turf wars occurring between different departments. It seems to be the first unwritten rule of a civil servant: protect your minister at all costs. It’s amazing! It really is. I mentioned how DECC has now joined with BIS to form BEIS. I think this a good change because it cuts out an interface.

There are very, very bright and dedicated people in the civil service. By and large, it works. Civil servants are extremely good at policy, but they have – and this is a bit of generalisation – less technical capability, in my experience. Construction is, after all, a technical field.

So you would want someone in that sector who had both the ability to specialise and to see the broader picture?

Yes, although this is few and far between. The means of promotion in the civil service is an issue that arises here. People are keen to move on and up in departments, but in some of the technical areas like construction, they benefit from having people there quite a long time. However, people don’t want to stay - not because it’s construction, but because the route for promotion is often to move around.

How do you think your experience in government will feed into the work that you have lined up over the next few months?

I think students like to be dealing with people who are engaged in real life problems. So, hopefully the relevance of that will feed its way into my teaching. I’ve been asked to give a lecture on the current issues in the construction industry. It’s not quite a basket case, but it’s an industry that’s suffering. And, yet, the solution is in its own hands.

Peter Hansford is looking forward to using the summer to get to know colleagues and prepare for teaching and research over the coming months.