From the Paddington Pole to Theresa May’s cabinet, both appear to be busily wielding an axe


Somewhere in the City of Westminster, an amazing transformation has occurred. Not in Whitehall’s corridors of power, well-rehearsed though they have become in change over the past three weeks. But slightly to the north-west in Paddington, where the proposed £775m Paddington Pole, the ire-inspiring tower designed by Shard architect Renzo Piano, has suddenly become a cube, and 56 storeys shorter at that.

The redrawn designs for the Pole-that-is-not-a-Pole, unveiled last week, are remarkable not so much for their architecture, which is solid rather than show-stopping, or even for the vastly warmer welcome it is likely to receive from local residents than the previous, domineering scheme. What is in fact most startling about the refreshed scheme is the scale of change proposed by the developers to counter local concern over the scheme’s suitability, and the speed at which that change was executed. This is something that can serve as an example to others, whatever your opinion of the project.

Of course, this is not to suggest that architects and developers should redraw plans at every tumble of a nimby’s hat; far from it. But the lesson the now pole-axed design provides is that, sometimes, structures are just wrong. And it’s ok - better in fact - to say so, and move on.

While Renzo and co were busy lopping floors off their project, its new near neighbour, prime minister Theresa May, was busily wielding an axe of her own in a wide-ranging cull of departments and ministerial posts. For construction, one of the most divisive moves was the decision to scrap the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), rolling its responsibilities into an enhanced business department.

The lesson the now pole-axed design provides is that, sometimes, structures are just wrong

The move has come under fire from several lobby groups, and given the Conservatives’ track record on green policy, there is undoubtedly foundation to their fears. But, for those looking for a governmental structure that can successfully embed sustainable policy into the fabric of the UK, the previous separation of green policy away from industry and business had come to look eccentric and plain wrong. And it should be ok to say so, without that being interpreted as diminishing the importance of sustainable energy and climate change to the UK’s economic and social future.

Whatever the reason behind May’s decision - the reduced focus on sustainability her critics accuse her of; or a rationalisation of responsibilities; or, simply, as the rumour mill has it, a lack of office space - the outcome is that green policy will no longer sit in a corner away from political responsibility for the industries that will be required to deliver it. And whether by accident or design, that offers a huge opportunity for a green approach to the economy to be embedded in government policy; and by extension, to the built environment that serves those industrial and business communities.

Having a dedicated department with climate change in its title sounded great, but the reality was that the work of the now-defunct DECC had become increasingly isolated from other aspects of government policy, and this undermined the implementation of initiatives it championed.

Feed-in tariffs, the Green Deal and display energy certificates are just a handful of those that spring to mind.

So whatever the reasons behind May’s decision, an opportunity now exists to ensure that those initiatives that are introduced to create a greener UK are given a fighting chance of success by integrating them with broader decisions on funding and market incentives.

And in the new business secretary Greg Clark, a long-standing sympathiser with environmental concerns, there is a political leader in place who will understand the importance of that opportunity.

From construction’s perspective, after the pain of some of the government’s stop-start green schemes, the reduced potential for mixed messages and backtracking on sustainability initiatives will be welcomed. This is particularly the case given wider economic uncertainty following the EU referendum and the fragile position of the contracting sector in particular following the last recession.

Our annual league tables, published this week, show that the average profit margin of the top 50 contractors has fallen from 1.16% last year to just 1.05%. Against that backdrop, the industry needs clear signals over where to place its bets. And if it can help make the case to the new business department that those bets should be in developing low energy technologies and processes, then the industry, and future generations of UK citizens, will both stand to win.

Sarah Richardson, editor