A new actor is about to go on stage: the chief construction officer. And whoever gets the part will need to be quite a performer, because they’ll have to act for the industry in Whitehall, and for Whitehall in the industry. Sophie Griffiths conducted a quick audition …

The construction industry is about to welcome its eighth minister in seven years. The regular turnover of the post seems to be one of the few certainties in a fast-changing sector. However, the government has recently sprung a surprise in announcing that it will back the creation of a new Whitehall post: that of chief construction officer.

The post was recommended by a parliamentary select committee in July and is designed to champion the interests of the industry in government, although exactly what that will mean in practice have yet to be confirmed (see box). This position may prove crucial in mediating between industry and government, both of whom are guilty of a certain lack of coherence and co-ordination. But what sort of person would fit the bill?

Opinions differ. Stephen Ratcliffe, chief executive of the Construction Confederation, believes that a diplomat is required. “We need someone with charisma, who’s able to get on with others, engage people, and not get their backs up,” he says. Stef Stefanou, chairman of Doyle, disagrees. “The selected person shouldn’t be worried if he upsets a few people. If he has to push the boundaries, and if it’s necessary to tread on people to achieve what has to be achieved, then so be it.”

Here, we examine four men whom top industry figures have picked out as likely candidates. How do they measure up?

Paul Morrell

Paul Morrell
Paul Morrell

Current job Independent consultant on construction economics and procurement.

Previous experience Formerly senior partner of Davis Langdon, Morrell’s CV includes extensive experience of large projects.

Career highlight At the age of 29 he became the youngest ever equity partner in Davis Belfield and Everest.

What he says In July, Morrell described the proposed post of construction officer as “another tsar”. He added: “Cosy though the idea is that government and industry could meet over a latte at Starbucks, the fear is that the appointment of a single person might be regarded as ‘job done’ – and whoever is appointed would then be easy to ignore.”

What the industry says Stefanou sees Morrell’s background in the industry is an important qualification for the role. “He’s switched on and in touch with the basic needs of the industry, and he understands the difficulties.”

Other leaders in the sector, however, expressed concerns over appointing someone with no previous experience of Whitehall. “We need to have a person who understands how the government works, too,” says Mike Peasland, group managing director of Balfour Beatty, “someone with a knowledge of both sectors.” Graham Watts, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council, doesn’t think this is a problem: “He comes from a background in consultancy rather than contracting but he’s the right kind of person – he’s a heavyweight.”

Sir Peter Gershon

Sir Peter Gershon
Sir Peter Gershon

Current job Spent the summer in Australia after the government invited him to review its technology and communications budget.

Previous experience Gershon’s 35-year career has spanned private and public sectors. He was knighted in 2004 and in the same year was awarded the CIOB President’s Medal for his commitment to excellence in construction. He was chief executive of the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) from 2000 until 2004.

Career highlight While at the OGC, Gershon was commissioned by then chancellor Gordon Brown to conduct a review of public sector spending. This became known as the Gershon Efficiency Review. It is credited with making £20bn of savings in 2007/08 by cutting public sector jobs.

What he says In contrast to previous remarks made in his review, Gershon announced last week that compulsory redundancies should be a last resort. He said: “It would be an easy temptation to think about slash and burn-type action. In my view this should not be the first, second or even third port of call for public sector bodies.”

What the industry says Ratcliffe calls Gershon a “very strong character; well respected but able to challenge others”. Peasland is happy to second this opinion, believing Gershon’s “knowledge and position within government circles would be a great advantage”, although he suggests that the industry may “need somebody with a bit more pragmatism.” However, for Watts, experience in government is not enough. “We need someone with knowledge of government and construction to carry influence in Whitehall,” he says.

Vice Admiral Peter Dunt

Vice Admiral Peter Dunt
Vice Admiral Peter Dunt

Current job Retired.

Previous experience Dunt held the position of chief executive of Defence Estates in 2002 with a 592,600 acre, £15.3bn portfolio split over more than 4,000 sites.

Career highlight Dunt’s negotiation of a £500m contract to improve accommodation and services for military personnel and their families.

What he says There is evidence he takes the construction industry seriously. Defence

Estates wanted to merge its South-east and Eastern prime contracts, but he decided against it because contractors opposed the move. Dunt said: “There were compelling reasons to merge the regions, but we took some soundings from the industry, and in the end we decided not to do it for the sake of stability. It shows that we do listen to contractors.”

What the industry says “He could be good,” says Peasland. “He’s quite a quiet, unassuming guy, but he’s pragmatic. And he’s ex-navy so I think he would have a logical approach.” He cites the experience Dunt gained in negotiating the accommodation contract. “An understanding of how government and industry works, as well as the benefits of a collaborative procurement regime should be the prime elements of the role, and Dunt has all of this.”

Douglas Oakervee

Douglas Oakervee
Douglas Oakervee

Current job Chairman of the £16bn Crossrail project to build a railway line under London.

Previous experience Oakervee is one of the UK’s most distinguished civil engineers. He was elected 139th President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 2003.

Career highlight Overseeing the construction of the £12bn Hong Kong airport in 1998.

What he says In July, Oakervee said of the economic downturn: “The advantage is that the challenge that we were facing is not as severe as it might have been in terms of skills shortages.”

What the industry says Watts describes him as his “favourite candidate by a long way”, saying: “He has the right background, he would be able to stand up to people – he’s delivered huge projects, so I don’t think anyone should have any doubt about him.” He adds that Oakervee also knows Whitehall. “He knows his way around the civil service. I don’t think he would do the job for long but I think in the short term he’d be absolutely perfect.”

What does a CCO do?

The business and enterprise department has yet to confirm full details of the terms and scope of the chief construction officer post, but duties are expected to include:

  • Promoting best practice in procurement
  • Acting as the principal point of engagement between government and the industry
  • Improving the industry’s image.