Professional Futures

Blog Author: Richard Saxon CBE, JCT Chairman

Every part of the construction industry is challenged by rapidly evolving threats: stagnant productivity, falling human resources, failing business models, climate change, globalisation, advancing computer power, to name some of them. Most attention is paid to the plight of contractors and specialists, but the world of consultancy also faces these same issues. Professionals additionally face falling credibility and authority as respect for expertise declines. Their professional institutions seem powerless to communicate the value of the professional contribution to the public, to clients and to government.

A new book, ‘Professionalism for the Built Environment’, by Simon Foxell¹, provides a guide to the recent thinking of the professions’ leaders as set out in the Edge Commssion’s review, chaired by former Government Chief Construction Adviser Paul Morrell. He also proposes several ways to address these issues. Simon charts the 200-year rise of the three main disciplines, civil engineering, architecture and surveying, from their formation to the present. He sets out clearly the need for a new bargain between society and the professions.

All professions are similarly challenged as their standing has been compromised. Their historic model of standing outside the state and the commercial world has been eroded during the later twentieth century by government and client pressure to be more pragmatic and engaged. Their protected fee model was outlawed. Large professional service firms have evolved as a result, but these changes also undermined the public service ethos. Professionals are often perceived now as working for their own interest, either commercially or intellectually, rather than for society or their paying customers.

Foxell sets down a model charter for all the built environment professions: their various versions are quite close to each other already. To paraphrase, professionals should:

  • deploy their expertise with competence and integrity, on an evidence basis and in good faith.
  • put interests in this order: worldwide, society, client, colleagues, profession, self, taking full responsibility and considering all involved in making and living with the product.
  • keep themselves up to date, educating colleagues, society and rising new professionals and researching outcomes to provide shared feedback.
  • in exchange, government and clients should extend trust and respect, recognise professional
    independence, offer exclusiveness in key service delivery and provide fair payment.

The nostalgia in this formulation is evidence of the fall from grace.

Foxell’s stance comes through as idealist. He thinks that true professionals must stand up to clients who ask for things considered to be against the public interest. The late Colonel Siefert, doyen of the property boom of the 1960s-80s, openly acted as a hired gun, pushing his clients’ interest to the limit and expecting the authorities to contain him with their own expertise. With public bodies now largely stripped of such capacity, that ‘hired gun’ approach becomes un-professional, in Foxell’s view.

Simon’s stance raises a host of issues for construction professionals with mouths to feed, and for their institutions. But, as Lampedusa says in ‘The Leopard’, “to stay as they are, things will have to change”. The announced shift to an ‘Outcomes-Based’ approach to public procurement, based increasingly on data flowing from people’s use of services and their facilities, opens a road to a more professional, evidence-based approach to what is of value. The book is an engrossing read and a good source for policy development. It should be read alongside another excellent new book, ‘Why Architects Matter’, by Flora Samuel, published by Routledge. That focuses on improving the value proposition of architects but much of it applies to all built environment professions.


¹ Professionalism for the Built Environment. Simon Foxell. Earthscan from Routledge, 2018.