In an exclusive first interview, industry minister Brian Wilson talks to Building about the procurement lessons of Picketts Lock, making construction feel at home in the DTI – and his Beach Boy namesake.
construction minister Brian Wilson is used to hearing jokes about his rock star namesake. He finds it funny that thousands of Americans have probably surfed the net only to be confronted with a press release that explains that their Beach Boy idol opened a building site. And he has even heard his friend, comedian Billy Connolly, use the gag on Scottish radio. "Billy was saying he found it hard to believe that a Beach Boy could have been born in Dunoon in Scotland," he laughs.

But six months into the job – which combines, for the first time, the portfolios of energy and construction – the jokes are now over and the industry scrutiny has begun. Wilson, who was presented publicly to the industry at a drinks reception this week, is facing a key question over his role. Is construction neglected, with no dedicated minister to fight its corner? Is the switch from the DETR to the DTI diluting construction's significance? Wilson also has to contend with those sniping from the sidelines who openly question whether he will ever be able to step into the boots of Nick Raynsford, the most popular construction minister ever.

With this baggage to carry, perhaps it's not surprising that some accuse him of not spending as much time on construction matters as his predecessor – and being less interested. One industry figure said: "Of course Wilson's not as loveable as Raynsford – he's a deep thinker, but often looks bored. He seems to know what he's interested in and focuses on whatever that is at that time, regardless of whatever else may be happening."

Ensconced at construction's new home at the DTI, Wilson certainly gives the impression that he can face down his critics. But he is also keen to reassure "Worried, of the Major Contractors Group" that apart from the occasional flick on the tiller, it will be steady as she goes on the course set by his predecessor. "I'm lucky because there is already an agenda in place for the industry; I'm keen to deliver the Rethinking Construction initiative," he says. His vision for the industry is predictable, but perhaps none the worse for that. With a glance at his brief, he pledges support for Sir John Egan's strategic forum and talks at length about the the government's commitment to best value. This is a stance later reiterated in his speech at the reception attended by 400 industry leaders.

Those in the business who are further left of centre and looking for a more interventionist approach from a political co-thinker could well be disappointed. His department is unlikely introduce any further measures to attain Egan's holy grail of integrated supply teams, negotiated contracts and zero defects. "It is not the job of the government to 'unilaterally deliver' the agenda. It is down to the construction industry's trade organisations and umbrella bodies to begin to act. Self interest is the biggest motivator," he says with a broad smile, perhaps thinking of Scottish forebear Adam Smith's notion of the "hidden hand of capitalism". "It is up to the industry to take responsibility for its own improvement."

Wilson does, however, have a plan. He aims to ensure that government procurement practices will improve and that major projects will in future be done properly. In other words, no more Wembleys and no more Picketts Locks. He believes that the government can make its influence felt by setting the right standards as a client, because as he says "the government procures 40% of all work".

He thinks that his ministerial colleagues can also play a part in this by ensuring that they insist on best practice procurement. He adds: "I think it is a case of 'out of sight, out of mind' – cheques come through and ministers just sign them off." So he certainly believes consciousness-raising exercises over procurement are called for at some of the major departments.

Wilson repeatedly returns to the subject of best practice, and it is clear he will do so in future. He links the woes at Wembley, the Millennium Dome and Picketts Lock with a failure by government departments to adopt best practice procurement methods. He says: "There should be more pre-planning, and greater standardisation of procurement for all projects, which would give the projects a greater chance of running to cost and time."

Wilson also intends to take steps to make construction more at home in the DTI after the big switch. "Construction is special, because E E of its significant contribution to the economy and the sheer number of people it employs," he says.

Self interest is the biggest motivator. It is up to the industry to take responsibility for its own improvement

Having said that, the construction minister admits that he now spends more time dealing with energy questions than construction, but hints that this could change.

He also confesses that he has no personal experience of the construction industry, except as a poor client, and has "much to learn". The 53-year-old Wilson was elected as MP for the Scottish constituency of Cunninghame North in 1987. He served in opposition as spokesman on Scottish affairs, and, after the 1997 election, first as minister of state at the Scottish Office and then at the DTI and the Foreign Office. Politically, his feet are in the Brown camp.

Reaching further back, he attended Dunoon Grammar School and Dundee University, before becoming a journalist. As a hack he developed something of a reputation as a radical with probing stories about land ownership in Scotland after founding the West Highland Free Press.

So why did he jump ship and head for Westminster? Wilson says he changed career so that he could try to put some of his views, especially on local Scottish issues such as land ownership, into action. A fanatical Celtic fan, Wilson also compiled a "definitive history of Celtic football club", but admits that it is now out of date, as it was written 13 years ago.

Despite his lack of construction knowledge, Wilson appears genuinely interested in the industry, especially housing, and is greatly encouraged that the strategic forum is attempting to improve the industry.

During his short time in office, Wilson has launched the anti-cowboy quality mark pilots (an announcement on which, he says, will be made in the new year), and visited Brazil and the Far East as part of an energy review. A trip to Afghanistan may also be on the cards, as British firms should be planning to — as he puts it — "build, not rebuild" the country.

In addition to that, of course, he has dealt patiently and sympathetically with an endless stream of supplicants from the construction industry, each bending the ear of the minister as to why their neck of the woods should have priority.

Personal effects

Who’s who in your family?
My wife is called Joni. I have a daughter called Mairi, 13, and two sons Eoin, 10, and Ronan, five.
Where were you born?
Dunoon in Scotland.
Do you have any pets?
We have a cat called Piseach (Gaelic for “cat”).
What are your hobbies?
Football and golf.
Which football team do you support?
What is your favourite building?
Tate Modern in England, the Burrell in Glasgow and the Guggenheim in Bilbao.