Farmer: low-cost obsession stalling offsite procurement

28th January, 2020

The five government departments committed to a presumption in favour of offsite lack the intelligence to implement it in procurement, and need "re-educating", according to Mark Farmer, the government's modern methods of construction (MMC) champion and Cast Consultancy chief executive.

Speaking at a Westminster Business Forum event in London, Farmer (pictured) said a fixation with cost was partly to blame for the slowdown in adoption of offsite construction. He said: "There was some press last year that [the offsite presumption] hasn't led to a whole plethora of MMC projects. That's a combination of various things. Part of it is that the departments' internal teams need re-educating, around how you procure value and how you actually deploy the MMC presumption in a way that achieves end value. The biggest problem I see around procurement is lowest-cost procurement."

Last year,Construction News revealed that three of the five government departments that committed to prioritising offsite construction by 2019 did not award any contracts with an offsite component in the first eight months of 2019. Ministries covering education, defence, health, justice and transport had all previously committed to a "presumption of offsite" but no contracts with an offsite component were procured by the health, transport or defence ministries in the period.

Referring to some of the procurement teams in those departments, Farmer added that, where MMC was concerned, he was not convinced that "the intelligence is there, with all due respect […] to realise that they're potentially running into problems in the future".

At the same event, Ann Bentley, a director at consultants Rider Levett Bucknall and Construction Leadership Council board member, said that attitudes towards offsite can vary dramatically according to environment. "In the most senior levels of public departments, I think there is some enthusiasm [for offsite] and I think we are certainly seeing encouragement," she said: "It might not be an absolute requirement but it is encouragement. What we see in the office, though, is often that the middle managers, the people that haven't had the benefit of attending lots of courses, or who only have 10 minutes to get the tender out, they're the people who tend to go back to, 'Well I did it this way last time and it worked so I'll do it again'."

When asked by Construction News whether the industry will see the results of the offsite presumption in departments other than education, Infrastructure and Projects Authority construction director David Hancock said: "One of the reasons DfE gets there first is they're building 300 schools, so it's quite easy to do."

Adding that the shift to offsite will "not happen overnight", Hancock pointed out a high level of offsite construction is being used by Kier on the new prison at Wellingborough and said that the Department of Health and Social Care is using offsite to develop repeatable operating theatres for new hospitals.

Last week, the DfE revealed 10 contractors on its new £3bn offsite school framework, including Laing O'Rourke and Wates.

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