Construction sector needs a well thought-out policy | Sunday Observer

Construction sector needs a well thought-out policy

Technical auditing helps launch investigations and curbs all kinds of technically corrupt means. Pic: Sulochana Gamage
Technical auditing helps launch investigations and curbs all kinds of technically corrupt means. Pic: Sulochana Gamage

The construction industry is a major contributor to the Gross Domestic Product and a major driver of employment creation. A true development of the construction industry creates a multiplier effect in the national development process, owing to its forward and backward links.

However, the domestic construction industry is now sluggish as a market and informal as an industry. Hence there is a need for a national policy on construction, envisioning a sustainable growth, based on a holistic approach. This essentially warrants consideration of all the issues encountered by the stakeholders.

Such a policy must be aimed at creating an efficient construction industry able to effectively serve national development needs. This is basically through a proper streamlining of the entire supply chain, standardisation, capacity building, facilitation and research. What matters is a policy which will form an integral part of the economic policy that offers the national benchmark for strategic direction of the country’s development.

At the outset, the policy must foster a culture of well-oriented sustainable construction. The first ever ‘bullet’ of prioritising public needs and utilities will help determine the scale of construction projects. We are a country with a building stock that is nearing obsolesce instead of demolition. Espousing adaptive building reuse will be the ideal step to deal with old buildings.

Promoting research on sustainable construction materials, methods and processes is possible via a centrally coordinated arm of research covering the entire university network, for example. We too can encourage the use of traditional knowledge as much as possible. Giving priority to public hearing also helps harness the potential of tacit knowledge of construction. Public hearing could be considered as an integral part of feasibility studies in gauging various alternatives available.

Meanwhile, encouraging the use of non irrigable lands for construction will be a step superlative. However, it is imperative to harmonise the allied policies, such as land use to ensure complementarity.

Finding ways and means of inspiring the entire supply chain in selecting the construction materials and processes is also possible via the application of carbon accounting principles. Stimulating among the masses the adoption of environmentally favourable construction practices, such as deconstruction and recycling, for example, will too help minimise the release of building debris to the environment.

Exploiting the market potential for solar energy is another way of looking at sustainability. In that sense, granting concessions for the private sector investment on solar energy, expanding the studies on green technology and promoting its application on all forms of domestic construction are a couple of giant steps a government can take a precedence in policy making.

A giant step would be to assign in tender evaluation an equal weight on the most environmentally favourable offer as same as the least cost and technically feasible offer in public procurement. We too can easily introduce green building index and indices along with a national green specification applicable for construction.

The government is able to emphasise the use of building resilient concepts and mainstream disaster risk reduction into construction practices, education and capacity building and establish a monitoring, evaluating and reporting system of the adherence of disaster resilient construction practices and structures.

Sri Lanka has no building maintenance policy. In this respect, standards are inevitable and they must be based upon the criteria in the order of health and safety issues, statutory requirements and structural integrity of the entire building stock.

On the other hand, a policy must be capable of strengthening the function of construction steering. Steering has several sub functions; both regulatory and promotional. Sri Lanka needs a Technology and Construction Court to trail out offenses, probe into matters of corruption, loss and deficiencies that result in loss of public money and render justice fairer and faster, all in relation to construction and technology disputes.

As an industry, it requires codes of conduct, practices, procedures; processes and documentation updated enough to promote a good culture on its own. This essentially warrants a comprehensive revisit of all kinds of construction related standard specifications and guidelines, update them for current and future use. Standards can be easily readable only when they are published in simplified versions for site level application. We do not have specifications on a provincial basis, however.

Relating to professional services, we do not find a service minute for many important professional disciplines, such as quantity surveying, technical auditing, forensic delay analysis and so on. A service minute is important to obtain and ensure that the public projects yield the best value for money.

Technical auditing helps initiate investigations and curbs all kinds of technically corrupt means. Registration is yet another function of steering. Extending a scheme of registration in order to encompass the entire supply chain and monitor all personnel and entities is indeed imperative. Regarding dispute resolution, it is vital to streamline the education of alternative dispute resolution in construction and stipulate a law regarding construction adjudication. Bringing a new law on construction decennial liability will also be a leap forward in the legal arena.

Construction is a field that circulates a colossal sum of money. A national construction fund would be collateral for obtaining bank facilities and as a hedge against construction deficiencies. On the other hand, contractors suffer from delay in payments and as a result, they quite often experience severe cash flow constraints and some go bankrupt with no solution behind.

Therefore, honouring payments within at least 45 days must be part of the law that will eventually help ensure uninterrupted progress at site and ease out cash flow problems. From the employers’ perspective, obtaining planning approval has become a difficult task, which in due course, finds them drop out their thoughts on investments.

In that sense, coordinating all construction planning and scheduling activities via a centrally coordinated arm of planning would serve the purpose of timely starting of projects.

Participation of all those who have a stake, financially or otherwise, is important in a public project not only in policy making but also in policy amendments from time to time.

The government should, envisage a positive and influential contribution from all the stakeholders in framing out and amending any policy, standard, protocol and guideline related to construction.

On the other hand, loss in projects has been topical for a long time. The government has to entail a policy that recognises that any loss with regard to any existing project shall be determined by virtue of the contract the parties have entered into, while giving precedence to laws of the country that protect public rights.

Such a policy must recognise state intervention in any controversy on the basis of a political and scientific reasoning.

Also, it is time the government intervenes in removing all forms of unauthorised construction and avoiding re-congestion into slumps. This is possible via alternative means of human settlement.

The government should discourage the use of unsolicited bidding in public procurement except where no other accepted means is possible due to the scientific nature of the project.

Sri Lanka is notorious for the high cost of construction. This is predominately because of imported materials and high labour cost.

Revisiting the tax structure and especially the existing cess system would ease out this situation. Since the economy is liberal to a greater extent where the private sector is free enough to invest and make money, it is important we establish a fairly sustainable mechanism to attract investment in infrastructure via private sector and foreign direct investment.

A proper tax incidence would only help this out. From the public perspective, declaring records of construction auditing and making them public domain can be a giant step. However, the public has no access to a directory of construction tradesmen, niche markets, local and foreign. Establishment of an industry-wide statistical database with information on resources, projects, industry players and linkages to related industries and sectors would also help the public in saving money.

This essentially warrants a systematic dissemination and publication of information relating to the construction industry and its development. The human capital must receive prominence in any policy. Using the human capital involved in the entire construction supply chain effectively is indeed imperative.

There is no centrally coordinated national pool of construction tradesmen, either. For tradesmen, it is important to introduce a central insurance scheme and provide a retirement scheme. Evaluating performance and annual appraisals, emphasising public accountability in all dealings, facilitating on-the-job training for apprenticeship and partnering arrangements will help expand this pool of skilled workers.

Introducing ethics for construction tradesmen and enhancing and monitoring the application of occupational safety and health standards and practices too will help inculcate a culture that is optimistic for a sustainable construction industry.

- The writer is attached to the University of Vocational Technology