The job of chief construction adviser is so daunting that only a person with unique skills can make it work. Which makes it all the more important that we find them
The appointment of the chief construction adviser this autumn could prove to be a turning point in the long history of relations between the construction industry and government. The need for the post has been well articulated over the past year or more since the House of Commons select committee recommended its creation. A single point of contact between a fragmented industry and an equally fragmented range of government bodies is vital.
The objective at the heart of the Latham and Egan reports was the better integration of the industry. But that goal applies equally to government. Although the word “government” implies, and is often interpreted as meaning, a single body, the reality is very different. Government in practice consists of a range of organisations each with its own agenda. This comprises government departments, agencies, non-departmental public bodies and local authorities, each of which has different interfaces with the industry, some as clients, some as regulators and some as promoters of national or local economic development.
Unsurprisingly this fragmentation makes it hard to ensure a coherent and consistent relationship between the industry and government. Breaking down the barriers, knocking heads together and trying to get joined-up responses from the disparate bodies that make up a government was always a hard challenge, as I recall from my days as construction minister. But at least I had the benefit of four years in post following a similar period shadowing it in opposition. I also had a Construction Directorate in the old DETR that employed more than 150 staff.
Since then there has been a trend towards much shorter periods in post for ministers and a much smaller team of civil servants specifically working on construction in the business department. This makes the challenge of achieving effective co-ordination across government all the harder – hence the need for a chief construction adviser.
But if the need for the post is clear, the difficulties that will confront the first holder should not be underestimated. Of course there will there be institutional barriers to overcome – the branches of government will certainly be reluctant to subordinate their interests to a wider objective. There will also be a series of challenges generated by the industry.
The chief construction adviser is likely to be pressed to prioritise a plethora of causes by different parts of the industry, whose expectations will be high. Managing his or her relationships with the industry groupings and avoiding the pitfalls of being seen as having been captured by one or more sectional interests will be vital. So, too, will be the need to avoid unrealistic expectations being created, which will inevitably lead to disappointment. As if these challenges were not enough, the chief construction adviser will be coming into post at a time when the industry remains badly hit by the impact of the recession and apprehensive about the future of public sector spending.
It should be obvious by now that only tough, serious, well qualified and experienced applicants should be throwing their hats in the ring. This is not a job for the faint-hearted. A successful chief construction adviser will need to command respect across the industry as a whole – not just one part of it. He or she will also have to understand how to make things happen in government. As Sir David King demonstrated during his tenure as chief scientific adviser, success in such roles depends crucially on the ability to gain and retain the confidence of those in the highest offices in government.
So, exceptional candidates will be required, and the selection panel will need to be demanding in their expectations. But the opportunity is a massive one, and given the right appointment, the chief construction adviser could leave as huge and lasting a legacy as King did in his field.
Nick Raynsford MP is honorary vice chairman of the Construction Industry Council and a former construction minister
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