When the House of Commons’ business and enterprise committee made the appointment of a chief construction officer one of the main recommendations in its Construction Matters report in July last year, many people thought it was a great idea – and likely to remain just that. Sixteen months and a few Whitehall wrestling matches later, Paul Morrell is four days into the job – he started on Tuesday with a trip to the Olympic site with Ian Lucas, who is every so often our construction minister. Congratulations are definitely in order .
Quite what Peter Mandelson, the business secretary, is expecting from Morrell is anyone’s guess, but the industry’s reaction to the appointment is easier to fathom. First of all, Morrell is well known and well respected by the industry’s political class; there is a general feeling that if anyone can make a decent fist of the job, it’s probably him.
These are the people who have had to deal with the 13 semi-autonomous and often poorly co-ordinated departments that are the industry’s biggest customer and principal regulator. Without going through all of Whitehall’s shortcomings in both areas, perhaps the overarching grumble is that the government doesn’t pay construction the attention its economic clout calls for. If Morrell can change that situation, there may well be a statue erected in his honour somewhere in SW1.
The reality, however, is that this is a three-day-a-week post and Morrell’s plan is to focus on two key aims: to co-ordinate low carbon policy and improve the government’s return on its investment. This may disappoint many, but it is the only way to operate – and, wisely, it promises benefits to both of his constituencies.
To tackle the first, Morrell is to chair the Construction Innovation and Growth team. It’s vital here that our industry is seen as the solution, not the problem – and that we end up with a clear, practical plan at the end of it. As with any project, the industry has to have a buildable, costed design. If Morrell can achieve that by the planned date of March he’ll have already earned his £120,000 salary – and more.
What about his other goal, to get better value for taxpayers’ money? Well, we’ve heard this many times before, but given Morrell’s vast industry knowledge and expertise, and his position as chair of the government clients’ group, he is at least well placed to make progress. What’s more, he has been both the starchitects’ QS of choice and the deputy chair of Cabe, so the industry can be confident that we’re not returning to a stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap way of building. On the other hand, he is not the industry’s greatest fan of partnering, so expect a long, hard look at procurement.
So we have a clear focus on two important tasks: the difficulty will be to block out the background noise, politely turn down the invitations already overflowing his in-tray and keep going despite the criticism that will come once the honeymoon is over. (Come on, this is the construction industry.) Luckily, in Morrell we have an individual who is his own man – who won’t be captured by the trade association with the loudest voice and who is forthright enough to emulate drugs adviser David Nutt and tell officials they are on the wrong track. He must preserve his independence at all costs.
And although Morrell makes it clear it’s not his job to formulate policy, one hopes that simply by having a construction heavyweight on the inside, his influence will be felt where it matters, even if it’s not directly measurable. And first up is getting Whitehall to accept that, whoever is in the Treasury after June, you can’t have a low-carbon economy if you cut spending on public projects.