If anyone can pull off the new role of chief construction adviser, it’s Paul Morrell, says Nick Raynsford. But we need to give him time before we can reasonably expect to see results

Paul Morrell’s appointment to the role of chief construction adviser is a cause for real celebration. Many sceptical observers wondered whether the government would act on the select committee’s recommendation to create such a post, and others doubted if an appointment would be made before the end of the year. Happily, the doubters were proved wrong. Others wondered if it would be possible to find a suitable candidate to meet the challenges of the role. During the month or more leading up to the announcement, the rumour mill was working overtime – mostly with speculation that implied very little confidence in the likelihood of an industry heavyweight being offered the job. In the event, the sceptics were pleasantly surprised, and the warm welcome which greeted the news that Paul Morrell would fill the post speaks volumes.

Morrell not only has the right mix of skills and experience to meet the industry’s hope for a heavyweight chief construction adviser; he has also hit the ground running and impressed a wide range of observers by the way he has grasped the opportunity and demonstrated from day one the leadership which is so needed. The way that he has picked up the mantle of the Innovation and Growth Team review of how the industry responds to the low carbon challenge is one very telling illustration of this.

But for all that there is a great deal to celebrate in the way the appointment has been made and the way Morrell has responded to the challenge, we should not be blind to the difficulties that still lie ahead. As I warned in this column three months ago, the chief construction adviser will face some daunting if not intractable problems. Being at the interface between a fragmented industry and an equally fragmented public sector was never going to be an easy task. Taking on this task at a time when the industry is still suffering the harsh consequences of the recession adds to the challenge. And, as if that isn’t enough, we are now rapidly moving into the pre-election phase when getting decisions through Whitehall is notoriously difficult.

So Paul Morrell needs not just our congratulations for this appointment, but a great deal of understanding and support to help him achieve what the industry clearly wants from the chief construction adviser.

Conventional wisdom suggests that people moving into difficult and demanding new jobs need to demonstrate a few “quick wins” to build confidence. This is not easy in the case of the chief construction adviser. One of the strengths of the post is the way it has been constituted as an individual adviser not tied closely into a single government department. But the downside is that the postholder does not command a body of staff to give effect to his initiatives. Indeed the very effectiveness of such a post, as we saw with Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser, depends on the postholder winning the confidence of the most senior players in government. This takes time. It also requires a degree of political sensitivity to avoid ruffling feathers, which is even more important in a run-up to a general election. The chief construction adviser must be able to work effectively not just with the present government but with whoever is in power after the election.

Building trust and confidence in such a context is not easy and could be jeopardised by overhasty or ill-thought-out initiatives. So we certainly shouldn’t be expecting fireworks or eye-catching initiatives from our new adviser over the next few weeks, nor should we build up unrealistic expectations. Morrell has made it very clear that he wants to see results, and will not hang around if he is unable to deliver. He has also set some ambitious targets for himself in his first few days in post and has initiated some very challenging work programmes. But these will take a while before the results are seen. We need to give him the space and time to deliver.