Building's editor finds research under threat from activists and the DTI

The company’s share price has fallen and one of its non-executive directors has quit. Behind the scenes, ministers have been trying to get the company to stay on board, but with neither compensation nor effective police protection, Montpellier decided enough was enough.

One doesn’t have to try very hard to imagine what a strain this affair has had on a management desperately trying to recover from a £20m loss. The university has said it will push ahead with the £18m facility. It will be a victory for democracy if it can succeed where Cambridge’s primate research lab failed. But will it be able to find a builder or suppliers, even by paying a harassment premium? Concrete supplier RMC has taken Montpellier’s departure as a cue to end its involvement. It, too, has been subjected to outrageous pressure, including hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of damage to cars and equipment. How many others will follow suit?

Ever since the appearance of eco-protesters in the 1990s, contractors have been used to dealing with people in trees and under the ground. But this is a more sinister and effective threat – and, as Montpellier’s experience shows, it is amplified by the City. Order books are pretty full at the moment – it would be surprising if any company felt they needed the hassle of this type of work. Until the government finds a way to deal with the handful of people who are determined to prevent vital medical research – the possibility of military involvement has been mooted – Oxford University needs more than a builder. It needs a martyr.

Assisted suicide

The move by the DTI to end the ringfencing of state money for construction research is part of a more general research policy. The theory is that state assistance should be given in larger packets and directed at creating step-changes in an industry’s technology, and therefore its productivity and international competitiveness. Yes, but which industries? The rational answer is: the ones most reliant on technology. The cynical answer is: the ones with the best lobby groups. The even-more-cynical answer is: the ones that can be moved to Spain if the government doesn’t deliver the goods. You don’t have to be a cynic to see that construction doesn’t score particularly highly on these counts. But without a steady stream of project-based data, innovation will judder to a halt over the next five to 10 years. Worse still, the organisations co-ordinating research, such as CIRIA and BRE, are themselves under threat, as Graham Watts warns. If the situation is allowed to drift, the UK construction industry may go the way of UK car manufacturing – an irony, surely, that cannot be lost on the DTI.