The government’s construction advisor has been in the job for a year - we take stock

This month marks the first anniversary of Paul Morrell’s appointment as Whitehall’s construction guru. Upon taking the job, Morrell set himself the tasks of making procurement more efficient and working out the part that construction should play in moving towards a low-carbon economy. But the real interest was in his strategic role.

He was seen as a sort of Sir David Attenborough, who could explain the exotic world of construction and its tribes to the (equally strange) tribes of Whitehall.

So it has come as a surprise to many that he has reinvented the board of public sector clients and excluded the industry from it. His rationale is that clients need to be able to speak confidentially about leveraging their collective bargaining power, and they need to assess openly the performance of their suppliers.

What it doesn’t mean, according to Morrell, is that the government is moving away from collaborative working; indeed the board will work with the Strategic Forum. But will the spirit of an integrated relationship be damaged?

Anybody tempted to regard Morrell as a traitor should think again. For one thing, he is there to offer policy advice rather than to formulate his own agenda. For another there is no point in fighting battles you’re bound to lose. The aim of policy in these straitened times is to squeeze every last drop of value from every pound spent, and that means that the government’s commercial power is going to be ruthlessly exploited.

That said, there may be benefits as well. For one thing, spending departments are going to scrutinise each other’s procurement techniques, so we can expect good ideas to be shared in a way they haven’t in the past.

What Morrell is aiming to do for the industry is to push it towards smarter design and construction, largely through the use of building information models, which almost everyone thinks are a good idea, but which almost nobody uses.

Finland and Denmark have made them compulsory for public sector projects and the UK may soon follow suit. Another aim is to make 30-day payment mandatory; this will come as a shock to the system at first, but once established it will do wonders for the morale of the whole supply chain.

So is the government about to end decades of vague and ineffectual promises and become a best practice client (albeit a stern and demanding one)? Well, as Tony Bingham points out, firms should not expect procurement to be reduced to a single side of A4 - the government’s new PAS91 form will still be a huge task to complete. But if the state follows Morrell’s advice, it could bestow benefits on the industry that the industry would never be able to bestow on itself.

Laing O’Rourke: The story so far
You all know the story of how a concrete specialist called O’Rourke bought one of UK contracting’s grand old names for a quid, then used it to found a global empire. And you will know that the firm did things differently: it championed training and direct employment in an industry that had casualised itself, and it invested in R&D while others stuck with the tried, the trusted and the outmoded.

Rivals were envious, but the only criticism they could come up with was that the firm was overly secretive, and that Laing O’Rourke wouldn’t be able to replicate its UK model in other domains. But a privately owned company is under no obligation to tell the world what it’s up to, and the UK model worked just fine until the financial crisis and the Dubai meltdown.

The firm now looks to be reorganising itself to target megaprojects, infrastructure and transport schemes around the world. For a recap of the Laing O’Rourke story so far and further insights into its future, see page 30.

Tom Broughton, brand director