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Ball, M (1988) Economic change in the British construction industry, Unpublished PhD Thesis, Department of Economics, Birkbeck, University of London.

  • Type: Thesis
  • Keywords: industry development; economic analysis; industry structure
  • URL: https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.389403
  • Abstract:
    Of all industries in Britain, construction has one of the worst public images. High cost, poor quality and chaotic working practices are believed by many to be synonymous with building work. Folk tales abound about what goes on in the industry. The derogatory word 'cowboy' is often used against get-rich-quick construction firms and workers. It sums up well the general view of construction - not quite proper, full of sharp practices, dangerous, inefficient and definitely not like any other modern industry. Like all folk-lore generalisations, such views of the construction industry are based primarily on myth. But they do have close links to many people's experiences of the industry, either as consumers or as building workers. Over the past 15 years, the industry has contracted substantially in the face of declining orders for new work. Substantial restructuring has taken place, leading to considerable reductions in capacity. In the context of such reduced potential, it is virtually impossible to expect any rapid increase in the output of the construction industry, even if a government decided to pump millions of pounds into building work. It is also unclear what shape the new slimmed down construction industry is in. Has it improved its hopeless record of high cost and low productivity? Are shoddy work and building failures aberrations from its past or an ever-present threat? In the midst of the rapid changes taking pace, it is difficult to piece together adequate answers to such questions without an understanding of how such problem first arose. This thesis explains why the building industry is like it is, and why and how it has changed over the recent decades. The popular view of construction is shown to be misplaced, but a dynamic, vibrant industry cannot, unfortunately, be revealed to replace the mythology. The core chapters look at the organisation of the industry, the relationships between employers and workers, the role of architects and other professionals, the slump in construction workloads over the past decade, the shift away from new building to repair and renovation, how firms have managed to survive the slump and the resultant impact on the industry as a whole, and assess the consequences of the changes that have taken place in the industry over the past 15 years. When looking at the construction industry, some guiding theories are required to interpret, organise and evaluate the mass of available information. So a sub-theme running through the thesis concerns theories of the construction industry. Competing views are examined, and it is suggested that the industry can only be adequately understood in terms of the complexity of its social relations, its history and the overwhelming dominance of large scale capitalist enterprises. Such an argument contrasts, in particular, with interpretations of construction which externalise its problems. Governments, economic fluctuations, trade unions, planners, even nature itself have been blamed for construction's ills; while remarkably little analysis exists of the peculiarities of capitalism in construction itself.