A year into the job of chief construction adviser, what has Paul Morrell achieved?
Is Morrell taken seriously by the movers and shakers?
It’s possible that the best thing that happened to Morrell was the election of the coalition government, and the sudden spotlight that put on procurement. Initial fears that the new government would attempt to sideline or even scrap a post invented by its predecessor were quickly allayed as he was brought into the centre of the debate over how to reduce government spend. The new regime also cleared up the turf war that had threatened to reduce his influence, by bringing the Office of Government Commerce, which had got all in a flap about his appointment, under the remit of the Cabinet Office.
Graham Watts, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council (CIC), says: “He’s upped the profile of construction within government, and he seems to be successfully insisting on talking at that permanent secretary to permanent secretary level. He has a ministerial quality about him and is respected.” Stephen Ratcliffe, director of the UK Contractors Group, says: “It’s very clear he’s well listened to.”
What Morrell says: There’s no table I wanted to sit at that I’ve had trouble getting to. The more the industry demonstrates its ability to change, the more the doors in government will open.
Top of the industry’s list for Morrell was him finding a way to get government to be a better client. Has he managed it?
Two achievements stand out in this area: getting the government to implement (mostly) 30-day payment times; and getting paymaster general Francis Maude to exempt big contractors from his review of contracts of major government suppliers, on the basis that more savings can be made by doing things differently.
But his influence hasn’t prevented education secretary Michael Gove from going back to Building Schools for the Future contractors and trying to squeeze 40% from the price of buildings already procured.
Morrell says a more mature attitude to public procurement could save billions if the industry acted more collaboratively, and he has found a believer here in construction minister Mark Prisk. But so far, in real terms, very little has changed. Ratcliffe says: “Not that much has been achieved so far, but you can’t blame him for it. He’s had one government dying on its feet and then the next with other, more pressing priorities.”
What Morrell says: I don’t think we have any idea of the real waste in the industry. The deal with Francis Maude [to avoid immediate renegotiation of contracts, by promising bigger cost reductions through restructuring the industry] raises the bar, it raises the stakes. It’s not about the industry saying “we’ve escaped that one” - it’s not the easy option.
Morrell delivered the Low Carbon Construction Innovation and Growth Team report last Monday. How did he do?
The 239-page report is cogently argued and even-handed. But calls for more industry/government bodies to look after the process, and for more regulation to ensure the retrofitting of existing homes, may not be well received in the current environment. It stresses the complexity of the industry, and has 65 recommendations in all. Peter Rogers, director at Stanhope, says: “I just hope there are not too many recommendations here so the central message gets lost.”
Ultimately, whether it is a success depends on how the government reacts to it, and whether the industry makes progress on more collaborative working. Vaughan Burnand, director at think tank CWC, says: “I’m not sure what ensures it isn’t just added to the pile of other reports.”
What Morrell says: I’m hugely proud of what we’ve done on low carbon. We need to do something disruptive to change the industry - which will involve clients taking a risk, and we need a view of the whole-life carbon value of buildings.
In order to get the industry to change, he needs to be able to communicate his vision effectively. Has he done it?
Morrell is a force of nature in conversation, with ideas tumbling from him at a rate of knots. He has undoubtedly impressed Whitehall with the holistic nature of the vision he has been able to lay out, and most are positive about his ability to communicate.
But he is also not one to spare people’s feelings if he needs to get his point across, or hesitate to cut people out of the conversation if necessary to get the job done. Last month, he told Constructing Excellence’s Don Ward and UK Contractors Group chair James Wates to leave the public sector construction clients’ forum, as he said clients needed to be able to talk confidentially. And while both bodies say they understand the reasoning, others murmur he is excluding contractors from the top table.
There is also the concern about whether he talks over the heads of the everyday industry. The CIC’s Watts defends him. He says: “His job is to talk to the trade associations and umbrella bodies, and we should translate that to our members. You can’t expect him to talk to government and a white van man in the same breath.”
What Morrell says: I can talk about the way the industry functions, I can be blunt to industry, and point out what needs to be changed. I can say, “it’s a good industry, but …”
The industry wanted Morrell to act as a construction champion within the government. Has he achieved that?
Morrell’s position is undoubtedly a tricky one - part of the construction industry for almost 40 years, but now employed by government. Any hopes that he would just be a lobbyist for construction have been dashed pretty quickly, with Morrell making it clear the industry has to change its ways. And his suggestion that 30% cost savings are achievable by a reformed industry has been controversial. Hugely intelligent and very confident of his subject and his opinions, most agree he has been a fair broker.
However, concerns persist from some contractors that, as a former Davis Langdon partner, he is giving the government a consultant’s-eye view on the world. One, who asked to remain nameless, says: “He leaves me cold. It’s just a QS coming in telling people to do this and do that.” Ratcliffe says: “At the beginning there was an element of that concern coming from one or two members. But he hasn’t ruffled feathers in the long term, and he’s definitely someone we can do business with.”
What Morrell says: I’m absolutely part of government - I work for my client. You don’t always love the client, but knowing who it is focuses the task. Those who think the idea of 30% savings is a political message are wrong. I’m not here to spout the marketing messages of the construction industry.
Morrell on Morrell
Most proud of … I said I wanted to improve the quality of the conversation, and I think I’ve done that. I’ve made sure government understands the strategic importance of construction, and that’s been recognised in the strategic growth review. I think there’s now an appreciation that the apparent lack of competitiveness of the UK construction industry is about what the client is asking of it, not about French or German subbies working harder.
Biggest frustration … is probably the suggestion that there isn’t an appetite - either in the industry or from clients - for the industry reform we need to see. From the client side it’s a fear of the risk, and from the industry it’s the fact it has worked out ways of being mediocre but still making money.
Next year’s priorities … are all about taking forward the work on procurement. We need to develop a strategy for public procurement that’s a real alternative.