Sir Neville Simms has made an epic personal journey from vilified motorway contractor to champion of sustainable procurement in the public sector. He tells Building about his plans.

Thirteen years ago, it was easy to find common ground between Sir Neville Simms, the boss of Tarmac, and Swampy, the eco-warrior. It was called Twyford Down, and it was an area of rolling chalk hills, a site of special scientific, historical, archaeological and, more recently, media interest. Tarmac was trying to build an extension to the M3 through it, and thousands of eco-protesters, named the Donga Tribe after the ancient drovers’ paths that crossed the land, were trying to stop them.

The outcome was a pyrrhic victory for the road builders: they got their extension, but the government was forced to rethink its whole policy on roads. As for Tarmac, it faced a multimillion-pound security bill and enjoyed about the same level of popular esteem as a cockroach in a bowl of breakfast cereal.

Simms is frank about the effect this had on his company. “Twyford Down rattled us,” he says. “We had the Swampys of the world there and they were very disruptive.” Protesters also appeared at Manchester airport, where Tarmac was building a runway extension, and they made an unwelcome appearance at the firm’s annual general meeting.

Twyford Down also affected Simms personally. So much so that the bête noire of the Dongas is now sitting in a central London office as head of the government’s Sustainable Procurement Taskforce. “We had two options,” says. ”Either we could stay and fight or we could find out what these people were saying. We decided to set up an environmental committee to see what the protesters wanted.”

The outcome of this was that Simms acknowledged Tarmac’s impact on the environment and announced that henceforth it would take the matter more seriously. And, crucially, he convinced the environmentalists of his bona fides. “We learned something from them, and they built an understanding that we were trying to improve,” says Simms. When the former Twyford protester Jonathon Porritt joined the committee, Simms had arrived.

All of which made Simms a logical choice to head the government’s taskforce, when it was set up in May. Simms still has firm links with the business world – he is non-executive chairman at power generation company International Power (see “Neville on nuclear”, overleaf) – and he may not be the next Swampy, but he is ideally placed to mediate between the construction and environmental lobbies.

The job he has been given is to establish an action plan, to be published in April 2006, that will ensure the highest standards of sustainability in the public sector’s procurement policies. Not unreasonably, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs believes that, with a budget of £125bn, the public sector has the capacity to force private business to provide sustainable products and services.

Simms is keen to emphasise that the taskforce is not just looking at environmental good practice but also economic and social sustainability. “The three must be linked,” he says. “In the past this hasn’t happened. For example, people took decisions based on economics and they’ve had to spend lots of money sorting out the social and environmental consequences.”

In the past, people took decisions based on economics and they’ve had to spend lots of money sorting out the consequences

The taskforce will attempt to find a way of striking a balance between the three strands. This could prove difficult. “The government E E will eventually want social sustainability in their supply chain, but at the moment it’s intangible,” says Simms.

A sustainability grading system for companies is one idea under consideration, possibly based on the traffic light system in use at Simms’ former company, Carillion. Under that system, companies are graded green, amber or red according to a number of sustainabiltiy criteria. Once there are two or more red lights, say, the supplier could then be dropped. The working groups are also looking at grading systems from abroad, and Simms has been encouraged by the discussions so far. “I’ve been surprised by the lack of walls, although the devil has yet to show his face in the detail.”

The devil, on this occasion, could take the form of a major contractor. As chairman of the Major Contractors Group between 1996 and 1999, Simms says he tried to push forward the sustainability agenda but found that, of the big players, only Carillion and Laing were really interested.

Simms also senses that some people regard sustainability as a passing fad. “There’s a scepticism and belief that this might go away, which is not the case. I stood up at the beginning of the taskforce and warned that if you want to supply to government you must be sustainable.”

Those bracing themselves for the introduction of changes to Part L and the code for sustainable buildings next April will be relieved to hear that there are currently no plans to introduce mandatory standards. Simms admits: “We don’t know yet whether it will be a code or sanctions or how it will be policed.” He does, however, think that setting targets would be too restrictive – there is the worry that once companies hit targets the temptation would be to stop trying to improve.

Those who believe that the issue of sustainable procurement will fade away should bear in mind that, as a founder member of the committee that came up with the concept of PFI, Simms has a track record of persistence. “When private finance was announced, the general reaction was that it would go away. But now, 10 years later, you would find it difficult to find voices against it, particularly within government.”

Clearly, as with PFI, the government is serious on this issue. It may have been possible to laugh off Swampy, but ignore the sustainable warrior Sir Neville Simms at your peril.

Neville on nuclear: Solving the energy crisis

As non-executive chairman of global power generation firm International Power, Sir Neville Simms is well qualified to comment on the UK’s future energy requirements. He believes that the best way to meet the world’s growing demand for energy is to build more nuclear power stations.

“The world will build more power stations,” says Simms. “The renewable sources of power that are affordable won’t generate enough power to fill the gap in supply.”

Simms says if the government’s climate change targets are to be met then nuclear power has to be considered.

Despite the lower carbon emissions generated by nuclear energy, Simms acknowledge that it is an imperfect solution.

“In my experience I’m aware we haven’t got a proper sustainable way of disposing of waste.”

Simms says the government must announce how the UK is going to meet its future demand for energy in the next few years or risk power shortages.

“We are not in a Doomsday scenario but we only have a one- or two-year timetable in which to make a decision.”

Although it would take industry 10 years to build a nuclear power plant, Simms says a firm government decision would give the power industry confidence to invest in other forms of power to meet demand in the interim period.

Simm’s career highlights

1970 Joined Tarmac as a chartered civil engineer
1992 Group chief executive of Tarmac
1994 Deputy chairman of Tarmac
1993-1999 Founder member of Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Private Finance Panel
1996-1999 Chairman of the Major Contractors Group
1998 Awarded a knighthood for services to the construction industry
1998 Non-executive director of National Power
1999 Chairman of Carillion, formed by the demerger of the Tarmac Group’s Construction Services business
2000-2002 Chairman of the New Deal Task Force for the construction industry
2000-present Non-executive chairman of International Power