Jennie Price, the famously combative former boss of the Construction Confederation, has been absent from the industry for some years. Now she’s returned, accompanied by … a row

“I couldn’t possibly give you that business card – it’s covered in chocolate.”

Jennie Price is rummaging around in her handbag, desperately trying to find a card unmarked by confectionery. As she does so, she chuckles away to herself, feigning indignation that the chaotic state of her bag is going to feature in the article.

The former Construction Confederation supremo has laughed a lot in the preceding 45 minutes, with not a single hint of the confrontational personality that one critic claims she possesses. The critic, who likes Price personally and has known her for the best part of two decades, says of her business style: “The problem is she’s a barrister and she does seem to enjoy arguing the impossible at times.”

What Price has been arguing for recently is that all buildings constructed on public land be made of at least 10% recycled material by value. This is a key feature of the Code for Sustainable Buildings, the draft of which is being sent out for consultation later this month. She pushed for the proposal’s inclusion in her capacity as chief executive of the government-funded Waste & Resources Action Programme, commonly known as WRAP.

WRAP started out in 2001 with three staff, including Price, and a life expectancy of three years. Five years later, it has 180 employees and a much increased role – evidence of the growing importance of waste elimination in the government’s policy agenda. And one obvious area where waste can be reduced is the construction industry. Not only is the industry notoriously profligate with its materials, but Price has intimate knowlege of it: she was an industry lawyer for 20 years and a founder of the Major Contractors Group.

The recycled materials target has been one of Price’s most contentious proposals. Michael Ankers, chief executive of the Construction Products Association, raises two major concerns: “Individual measures do not necessarily deliver sustainability. We would rather look at the holistic issues, such as how to recycle materials like steel when a building reaches the end of its life. When you start bringing in measures, it becomes a nightmare to implement them – and this is at a time when the government is looking into deregulation.” Others argue that 10% is simply not high enough, given that most buildings already contain 8-15% recycled material.

Price brushes aside such criticisms. She points out that 70% of the industry leaders who attended breakfast seminars held by WRAP in June said they were keen to implement the target. “And we will look to drive the target up,” Price adds. “The figure would depend on the nature of the building. Our research with Taylor Woodrow indicates that housing could go up to 30% at no extra cost and it would be reasonably straightforward to get to 20% across all building types within three years.”

It’s the old Greenpeace point: in the West we consume at three times the earth’s resources – we need three worlds to survive

The target has been set relatively low for now to ensure that the issue is at least addressed and that companies start to try measuring and analysing their use of recycled materials. Price insists that environmental groups are not concerned that the target is practical rather than aspirational: “I think the green lobby would first just like to see a target. Obviously it’d like to see something higher.”

However, some materials suppliers are concerned that the use of any target – on top of a proposal that they publish the amount of recycled material their products contain – will be harmful to their businesses, as it could present them as environment-unfriendly. Some products have to be made from raw materials to be of premium quality – PVCu windows containing recycled materials, for example, are slightly grey. But Price contends: “There has been a bit of a misunderstanding. There doesn’t have to be 10% in every material used in the building, but in the building as a whole.”

A potential problem is that the code will be voluntary rather than mandatory. However, WRAP is talking to the powers that be about incorporating the target into the Building Regulations. Price adds that construction companies should embrace recycling even if it is not mandatory, as the tax on burying inert materials in landfill sites is £3 a tonne: “Recycling these materials will save money for the industry as a whole.”

Price moves on to criticise the government’s eco-homes environmental grading system for housing, as it allows a trade-off between energy, water and waste aims. Waste recycling often ends up playing a rather quiet third fiddle. She says that her role on the draft code’s taskforce, and Sir Neville Simms’ sustainable procurement equivalent, is to ensure that waste is not forgotten.

“I make sure that one of the three legs of the stools isn’t missing. People think energy use equals carbon dioxide equals climate change and everybody understands that you have to have clean water to survive. But people don’t really think about all the material we consume. It’s the old Greenpeace point: in the West we consume at three times the earth’s resources – we need three worlds to survive.”

With that, Price moves to offer her business card. Unfortunately, they are all spoiled with the chocolate that has melted in her handbag. She won’t be handing those cards out to anyone. What a waste.

The enlightened Mr Knowles

Price’s husband, Mike, recently retired from consultant James R Knowles, where he was a director. The company made its mark in Building in March when its chairman, Roger Knowles, made the following comment in a letter to the magazine: “A considerable amount of correspondence has appeared in Building as to why so few women work on construction sites … A female colleague of mine probably put her finger on the truth when she said that neither she nor her friends would consider working on a construction site due to the effect it might have on their nails.”

Unsurprisingly, this caused a flurry of indignant letters to land on Building’s doormat. Price, however, has a different view on the exchanges. She says: “I think he was deliberately trying to be controversial. I think Roger is a lot more enlightened than that. In fact, I know he is because I sat next to him at my husband’s retirement dinner. Anyway, people can speak about breaking nails on site, but women break nails cleaning toilets. There’s no suggestion that women shouldn’t do domestic work."