Howard Gadd is hosting his first official engagement as the chairman of the Forum for the Built Environment (fbe).
The venue is a well-known Cardiff pub, the invitation is to an afternoon curry and the intention is to create an ambience in which members of the fbe’s Cambria branch can meet and network together.
This air of informality, in a relaxed environment, will be the hallmark of his chairmanship, a departure from the previous format in a way he calls “addressing a new flavour”.
He said: “The issue now is how we progress and in this I believe networking has been the important ingredient in helping to build relationships and trust within the organisation.”
It’s all part, he explains, of determining where the fbe stands in relation to its founding principles, which were laid down in 1946 at the height of post war austerity.
He said: “Then it was called the Faculty of Building and had a strong education bias, but comprised the same building sector professions as it does today. However, it did take time to arrive in Wales and the first branch started here 39 years ago when the Cambria Branch was formed.”
He added: “In 2006 the board decided they wanted a more relevant title which conveyed the message that we represented people who worked in the built environment sector. Having moved away from the education aspect it became a body where like-minded people could meet together and exploit connections made to generate business opportunities.”
As a consequence of this resolve the old name was dropped and a new title adopted – the Forum for the Built Environment – with a mission to influence public opinion through informed debate.
As a former regional director and now UK chairman, Mr Gadd’s strategy will be to connect directly with branch chairmen and regional directors.
“Currently we have 29 branches in 15 regions, so my purpose is to engage with branch chairmen and the membership to strengthen and increase this,” he explained.
Then, surveying his members enjoying a curry and Cobra, he added: “This will be done through organising events which, I hope, will be influential in members engaging with the right people.”
And his ambitions do not end there.
“In the next two years I hope to introduce a national conference so, rather than having several regional meetings, we are going to engage with all our branches,” he said.
“By introducing a conference the hope is that branch officials arrive together, share ideas and engage representatives so we get a direct understanding of what individual branches require.”
This approach, he believes, will be of greater value to the membership.
“This year we will address the theme of collaboration – the way in which we work with our clients to get the best possible results and focus on ISO 2011, which deals with new procurement routes soon to be adopted,” he said.
During his 50 years in the construction industry Mr Gadd has witnessed change on a grand scale.
Illustrating this, he recalled the first office he worked in.
He said: “There were 38 contract draughtsmen and two telephones at either end of the room. Today everyone has at least three devices in their possession, but the most significant change has been the way we approach health and safety issues.”
He added “The health and safety ethic is now integral to the industry, making it safer than it’s ever been. It’s not about what people tell you to do. Health and safety is embedded in everyone’s approach whether employer or employee.”
Another issue that captures his concern is that of procurement.
Once, he recalls, the client determined every detail and quantity surveyor recorded every measurement, material and process.
Commenting on the Egan Report, a UK Government initiative to introduce a more open and collaborative working relationship between clients and contractors, he said: “It marked a major shift and got rid of the adversarial approach that was in practice. Now the word is bi-partnership, the newer forms of contracts through collaboration have been greatly valued by the client who can engage with the contractor at the outset.”
This procedure has, he believes, worked well when it comes to procuring schools buildings.
In England the Building Schools for the Future programme costs were enormous. Learning from the mistakes made in England, Wales had a better understanding of how new schools could be procured and, in the resulting success, the Welsh Government can, he believes, take its share of the credit.
On planning issues he has his reservations and is not impressed by the drawn-out procedures that a contractor has to adhere to before approval is given.
He said: “Consultation is an expensive and complicated exercise not taken lightly and the more issues raised means more have to be resolved.
“It’s how we deal with those complications which is the challenge for the planners and those in local authorities who administer planning.
“Major schemes have gone to local authorities and been overturned resulting in an enormous amount of waste. The appeal process at that level should be better joined up with the local authority and that’s being addressed at the moment.”
Leadbitter, the building contractor, where he has been business development manager since 2002, is part of the giant French conglomerate Bouygues which has 10 wholly-owned UK subsidiaries and a turnover of £1.6bn.
Having initially been appointed to develop the business in Wales and the west of England his attention was to focus on the company’s social housing contracts.
He said: “I realised how good Leadbitter was in this sector. There were in place a number of partnerships and Cardiff council was taking an active interest through working with several housing associations.
“The council wanted to develop a partnership with a contractor-developer and Leadbitter thought it an opportunity to develop quality housing in South Wales. It became the catalyst for further development which we realised in the education sector with the Newport Schools Partnership and the building of Newport High School and Llanwern.”
Of his home, he is in little doubt of Cardiff’s importance.
While some believe in the distribution of resources, Mr Gadd believes more should be done to attract commerce to the city.
He said: “Cardiff is a recognised capital city where people come and enjoy a pleasurable experience.
“It’s compact, has easy access and a variety of facilities which, in a sporting context, are second to none. However, we struggle when it comes to office developments and bringing in new investment. We tend to move the same businesses around the centre and I think we miss the Welsh Development Agency (WDA).”
He concedes the agency had critics but achieved its inward investment targets and that major inward investment has been sadly lacking since its demise.
He said: “We have to compete both nationally and internationally and changes in network infrastructure within the UK are going to impact on every major city and we in Wales have to be up to speed. Currently the airport is struggling and Cardiff Central station has to be raised to another tier.
“These improvements will then link in with the proposed Convention Centre, which will be expensive to build and can only be justify by generating the surrounding economy.”
On this proposed development, his final thought is: “This Convention Centre has to be in Cardiff, which is the economic driver. In this context the city region is something I’m in favour of. It’s the initiative that could underpin these developments, giving them direction and purpose.”
It has, he points out, been done before with Cardiff Bay Development Corporation – a powerful organisation with its own focus and the city region concept can play a part in this.
The curry and Cobra scenario is going down well and members seem to be enjoying the format.
The fbe is, he reminds me, there to represent and benefit members by helping them engage with both the private and public sectors.
“England has its regional partnerships which engage with the professions and local government,” he said.
“So, let’s get our opinions in first and not be critical after events have happened. I would like to see the fbe involved in those exchanges and be the voice for infrastructure and the built environment with those in power.”