JCT Interview…Steve Medhurst

In the JCT Interviews… series we shine the spotlight on some of the key people who are involved with or give their time to support JCT, showing the diverse range of disciplines across the construction industry that our members represent and the collaborative work that contributes to the development of our contracts. We look at how our interviewees contribute to JCT specifically and gain their views on the wider industry and JCT’s role within it.

Steve Medhurst
member, JCT Drafting Sub-Committee
member, JCT Council

Steve Medhurst started in the construction industry as a ‘measuring surveyor’ with Croudace in 1971, having left school at 16 years old. Working primarily on housing developments, he later transferred to their contracts division, working mainly on Local Authority housing in South London. After working with a number of other main contractors, Steve became involved with sub-contractors and spent many years working a variety of roles, including estimator, QS, contracts manager, and even a gofer for bricklayers, carpenters, joinery works, decorators, formworks, shopfitters, and general builders – picking up a few trade skills himself in the process.

In 1998 Steve joined WB Simpson and Sons, a specialist contractor in tiling, terrazzo and stonework. A family firm looking for outside experience in their management, Steve spent a couple of years working as their commercial manager before being offered a director position. Steve retired from WB Simpson and Sons in 2018 after 20 years as commercial manager and director. He now works part time as a consultant for a number of specialist contractors, principally with disputes but also on contract administration.

JCT: Steve, how did you first come to be involved with JCT? Why do you think it is important to be involved?

SM: As a sub-contractor in the 1980s and 90s I dealt with many versions of contracts and works orders from main contractors that purported to be based on JCT/RIBA forms or similar that frankly were not worth the paper they were printed on. With the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996 (The Construction Act) coming into force in 1998, I realised the massive changes that were about to occur, in particular the benefits to the specialist industry. If nothing else, it stopped me sitting in main contractors’ receptions with muddy boots and a gang of angry bricklayers who would not leave without a cheque!

Around 2002 I was asked to represent The Tile Association (TTA) at the contract committee of NSCC (National Specialist Contractors Council) which was the pre-cursor to BuildUK. This led to my representing TTA at the JCT Council a little later. Although I am now retired from the business, I still represent TTA at the JCT Council.

Attending meetings was a bit daunting at first but it soon became clear that JCT is an industry leading organisation. However, it did strike me that the number of members with real time site practice and experience were few and many meetings turned on high-level legal principles rather than making a working document. Many smaller specialist sub-contractors can be sceptical of organisations like JCT and contracts in general so to be able to take and explain the latest information, trends, and developments to TTA members and their opinions back to JCT is fundamental to the way the organisation works.

JCT: Can you tell us about any specific work you are currently doing with JCT (e.g. any work with working groups/committees/Council/Board)?

SM: I have been involved with a number of Drafting Sub-Committee meetings in the past – specifically about payment and extension of time issues. Much of the other work is pure drafting and high-level changes to meet legislation, insurance, bonds and warranty issues, etc. These are all very important matters of course, but outside of my level of knowledge and better suited to the legal minds in the room. I tend to do my research and pass my thoughts and suggestions through the BuildUK group meetings who then take the collective strategy through the JCT process.

I am however interested in the current proposal to streamline the sub-contract versions for the next edition into a single document, rather than the multiple versions applicable to each contract family. This is principally to simplify and encourage more use of the standard terms and conditions and to promote wider use of the document to justify the amount of work that the organisation puts into producing it.

JCT: Do you have any personal career highlights?

SM: At WB Simpson we were part of many prestigious projects, such as the Kings Cross/St Pancras Station reconstruction, Royal Academy of Arts, several London Underground stations, Wembley Stadium, the Olympic Aquatic Centre, and many other high-end developments throughout London. I always point these out to people when we are there or passing by much to the amusement of my family.

I also appeared on ‘Antiques Roadshow’ at Chatham Dockyard where I took a collection of company records and Victorian tiled panels made by the company between 1860 and 1900 that are in our office reception. They were valued at around £30,000 but of course we wouldn’t sell them!

In terms of JCT and NSCC I was part of the lobby to the Government and DTI for the changes to the Construction Act resulting in the 2011 Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act (LDEDC) amendments. This is still not a perfect solution but the legislation has actually changed many attitudes towards payment throughout the supply chain. This was quite a process over a number of years and felt like I was in an episode of Yes Minister.

JCT: What are you most proud of about the construction industry as a whole and where do you think it most needs to improve?

SM: Construction has given me a good career and many life skills. Politics aside, the industry has provided the country with so many landmark buildings and projects that reflect the skills of people involved – from design through to the trades on site – of which the country can rightly be proud.

I have seen massive steps forward in the environmental and health and safety cultures, which can only be a good thing. In recent years I have seen increasingly a willingness to actually teach and train people in trade skills that should gradually mature into a highly skilled workforce.

JCT provides a well-balanced contractual relationship at each level of the supply chain but real improvement is still needed in the collaboration and co-operation from clients down to the operatives on site. JCT can encourage but cannot impose this. The specialist contractor is still regarded in some quarters as bottom feeders, often carrying most of the risk and solving problems with design and management that compromise the work and which could have been avoided with early involvement. Some more enlightened employers and contractors have adopted this much-needed best practice but the majority still view the specialist sector as a cash provider, profit centre, and whipping boy when things go wrong.

JCT: What do you see as the main challenges for the construction industry over the next five years?

SM: In terms of contracting, although I have my doubts, I would like to see the current BuildUK proposals for zero retention implemented throughout the industry. The Construction Act already provides adequate mechanisms for withholding payments for work not of the correct standard. Retention is an outdated, abused, and crude tool, as well as an anathema to much of the industry.

There is huge demand for more housing but rather than rely on developers providing so called ‘affordable’ accommodation, more thought needs to be given to the procurement of social housing through Local Authorities, Housing Associations, and the return of council housing.

The advent of Brexit and a substantial reduction of overseas labour will leave large gaps in the labour market that can only be filled by the current and ongoing programme of training. The COVID pandemic has shown that working from home for many is not what it seems, and the plethora of property and craft TV programmes has shown that producing real things can be more satisfying than working from a screen. I think that more people will enter the industry as a result.

The Grenfell Inquiry has also shown that the current systems and specifications of cladding for high-rise residential and industrial buildings is somewhat flawed, and this will no doubt have an impact on design and procurement for a number of years yet. It also begs the question as to what else is hiding out there?

JCT: Does JCT have a wider role to play in the industry beyond producing contracts?

SM: I would be wary of JCT venturing into areas that are unrelated to contracts. I believe JCT should continue doing what it does best and producing the suite of baseline documents for the industry.

JCT does play a wider role in educating the industry on best practice and the use of these contracts, for example with the JCT Contracts Discovery module, and provides speakers, training, and learning opportunities on specialised areas within the various contracts.