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Agents for change

In February 2021, eight building services associations formed a joint alliance to become an 'agent for positive change’.

Actuate UK is a group comprising BESA, BSRIA, CIBSE, ECA, FETA, LEIA, SELECT and SNIPEF. Its members cover every aspect of building services from design to delivery, from HVAC to lifts, controls, refrigerants and ductwork.

This is a significant development because it’s not often that so many diverse organisations within our sector come together with a common mission. Actuate UK has targeted four crucial issues in the construction and built environment sectors that require joint action.

The first is building safety. With the appointment of the new Chief Inspector of Buildings, Peter Baker, the industry is moving down the route directed by Dame Judith Hackitt’s 2018 report. Baker will head up the new Building Safety Regulator (BSR). Its powers will cover regulatory standards and competence – with the power to impose sanctions on those who do not come up to scratch.

Actuate regards this as an area that requires a joint approach across the building services sector. Safety has to be built into the whole construction process, from handover to operation. Dame Judith Hackitt called for a change of culture to end what she referred to as ‘the race to the bottom’ that drives down prices and standards. Changing an industry culture requires the whole industry to be on board.

The second uniting issue is the UK net zero by 2050 target. One of the major barriers to our potential success in reaching this goal is heating. It’s still dependent on fossil fuels, and shifting all of our buildings (homes and non-dwellings) will take some serious engineering effort. Whether we go for electric heat pumps or hydrogen, or heat networks, or (more likely) a mix, heating system design and operation will change. The industry needs to understand the implications and to work together on finding solutions.

Both of these concerns relate to the third: skills. Actuate recognises that the industry faces a ‘critical skills crisis’. Again, this reflects the Hackitt report’s scathing view of a lack of understanding of areas such as regulations in the construction sector. But it also highlights the problem of attracting young people to all types of work in our sector, whether as apprentices or undergraduate engineers.

And all of these factors together effectively lead on to the fourth area that Actuate aims to address: Business recovery. Without the skills to deliver safe and sustainable buildings (i.e. the kind of buildings that clients want), the industry will face some real problems.

Individually, these organisations have contributed to the building services sector with expert guidance, training, publications and government lobbying on essential issues. Hopefully, together as Actuate UK they can truly draw on all of their strengths to lead the industry into the future. And their collective voice can be heard by the government on issues that matter to the industry, such as retentions and prompt payment.

Some progress has been made on the prompt payment code and Project Bank Accounts, for example. Good payment practice and certainty of prompt payment will provide a vital boost for the many SMEs who make up the building services sector. That, in turn, will help them invest in training and technology and make the changes necessary to improve and build back better.

The construction industry has often been criticised for being fragmented, but the pandemic has shown that it can change and adapt. Actuate UK may be an alliance whose time has finally come.

This guest blog first appeared on the Mitsubishi Electric hub in March 2021.

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