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Does British Columbia need a Ministry of Construction?

Peter Caulfield
Does British Columbia need a Ministry of Construction?

A North Vancouver construction consultant says a provincial Ministry of Construction is needed in order to provide leadership in construction procurement at the senior political level.

"There are many interconnected problems," said Helen Goodland, principal of Brantwood Consulting. "The main cause is a lack of construction knowledge in many local governments in British Columbia. As a result, many of them don’t put quality first. Instead, they are driven by the cheapest price."

Goodland said public construction projects are becoming more complex and delivery is becoming more sophisticated.

"The processes of some municipalities haven’t caught up to many of the changes in delivery," she said. "Some of them don’t understand what they’re asking for."

For example, said Goodland, some local governments will ask for a project that is "innovative" or "green," but leave out the specifics.

"That leaves the contractor to figure out what the client wants," she said. "Sometimes, because of a lack of clear directions, the resulting project turns out to be more expensive and complex than it needs to be."

Goodland said it is essential that construction in British Columbia has a leadership-level voice that gives voice to industry’s needs and wants. "A Ministry of Construction can lead the discussion on reforming the public procurement process," she said. "It might need to be in place for only a few years, long enough to take care of the problems that exist now."

Greg Baynton, CEO of the Vancouver Island Construction Association, agreed and said that a Ministry of Construction is absolutely needed in B.C.

"It’s something we’ve been working on," he said. "There are varying degrees of experience and expertise in governance and accountability on the part of the municipalities and school districts."

Baynton said the presence of a Ministry of Construction in government would help to mitigate the lack of consistency in how procurement is undertaken by local governments and school districts. "Right now, there’s no single place for the construction industry to go to," he said. Oversight of the municipal procurement process needs to be strengthened, said Manley McLachlan, president of the B.C. Construction Association.

"There are real problems with the processes used by municipalities to acquire the proposals and bid submissions," he said.

McLachlan said a lack of experience and expertise are often to blame. "Construction procurement is complicated and high-cost and many of the experienced people are retiring," he said. McLachlan said part of the solution is for the provincial government to put in place guidelines that provide more direction.

"This might require an adjustment in the relationship between the province and the municipalities by making changes to the Local Government Act," he said.

The Scottish government, which is responsible for 32 local authorities – a very rough equivalent of Canadian municipalities – faces many of the same construction procurement challenges as B.C. In response, it introduced some changes to the way government and the construction industry work together. About five years ago, the Scottish government launched an initiative called the HUBCo model.

"HUBCo is a partnership between government and the construction industry to deliver greater value for money on publicly procured projects," said Stephen Good, CEO of the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre. "It does this by building strategic frameworks with industry."

The rationale for HUBCo is a desire by the supply chain structure in Scotland to see greater certainty in long-term investment across the public sector.

"HUBCo wants to deliver greater certainty of work, and allow the whole industry to use that certainty to invest in training, skills, efficiency and innovation," he said.

In addition to HUBCo, government and industry are taking part in an industry-wide review of public procurement in construction.

A similar initiative in Saskatchewan is attempting to bring the construction industry and local governments closer together. In 2014, the provincial government announced the creation of Priority Saskatchewan. The new entity is responsible for ensuring procurement across ministries and the Crown sector is "fair, open, transparent and based on international best practice."

"Priority Saskatchewan wants to share those best practices with the MASH sector – municipalities, school boards, publicly-funded academic, health and social service entities," said Karen Low, executive director of Merit Contractors Saskatchewan.

"The goal is to make them all more proficient in procurement."

Low said it makes sense for the entire public sector in Saskatchewan – provincial government, Crown corporations and the MASH sector – to be on the same public procurement platform.

"If they can come up with an acceptable set of best practices, then MASH will buy into them," Low said.

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