Whitehall’s first chief construction adviser says public spending cuts would wreck the green agenda

The ability of the construction industry to develop low-carbon technologies will be undermined if the next government cuts public spending on building projects, the new chief construction adviser has warned.

Paul Morrell, the former senior partner of Davis Langdon, was speaking after being confirmed in the role on Monday. He beat off competition from seven shortlisted candidates to secure the £120,000 a year post.

Morrell’s task will be to act as a liaison between the industry and government, to advise Whitehall on formulating policy and to help the industry to carry it out.

He stressed that it was “not his role to direct policy”, but added that he believed the government was fully aware of the importance of public investment on its other goals, such as sustainability. “The UK’s ability to respond to things like the carbon agenda will go if firms don’t have the fuel of turnover. It would surprise me if there was anyone sitting in the Treasury now saying how can we cut this spending, without realising the dramatic impact it would have.”

Morrell, who was giving his first full interview since taking up the post, predicted he would devote “more like seven days a week” to the role, rather than the three he is paid for. He said: “My position’s quite clear: I want to do a productive job. The day anyone thinks I’m not, I’ll be out of the door. I’m not doing it for a living.”

I want to do a productive job. The day anyone thinks I’m not, I’ll be out of the door

Morrell said his “immediate priority” would be working out how construction could help the UK meet its carbon reduction commitments. He said: “Carbon is a huge challenge, and I don’t think any of us have come together yet on that front. We’re going to need to start counting carbon as rigorously as we count money, and accepting that a building is not of value if the pound signs look okay, but the carbon count does not.”

He said that the opportunities for the building industry in the area were “enormous”. He said: “Saying that buildings generate 40% of carbon can make them sound like Godzilla creatures stalking the earth and doing bad things to us. The reality is that that’s the case because the home or workplace is often where we are when we’re expending energy. But it means the potential for the industry to contribute to the reduction target is enormous.”

The problem, he said, was that the industry as a whole still needed to be pointed in the direction of these opportunities. “The biggest problem so far is that the market isn’t responding. It wouldn’t be profound to say you needed to use a combination of market regulation and fiscal incentive.”

One of Morrell’s first jobs as construction adviser will be to chair the Construction Innovation and Growth team, which is focused on the industry’s contribution to the carbon cutting agenda. This is expected to have its first meeting next month. He said he hoped the taskforce would produce a “roadmap” by next March.

Morrell said his other priority was to extract more value for money for the taxpayer from construction projects. He said:

If the government wants smarter answers from the industry, it has to ask smarter questions

“It has to be right to get more out of every pound. So there needs to be a continuing improvement agenda.”

He said he would direct this through the Office of Government Commerce’s construction strategy board (formerly the public sector construction clients forum), which he will chair. He identified government leadership, waste in procurement and productive working environments as areas for improvement.

He said: “What I want to encourage [from government] is that if you want smarter answers from the industry, you have to ask smarter questions.”

However, Morrell warned the industry that if it wanted the government to listen to it “there’s no use going to it with a begging bowl. It will only work if the industry says, ‘Give me this, and I will do this for you’”.

He also underlined that the sector needed to speak with a “single voice” if it were to influence policy, and said that the RICS’ decision to pull out of the Construction Industry Council, if it proves permanent, would be “a massive shame”. He contrasted that with the recent consolidation of lobbying power in the CBI’s construction council.

He said: “I will ask them not to do it. The path that has access to government is that which comes forward clearly and cohesively. I can’t remember how many organisations there are in the CIC, but the government, and certainly me personally, can’t listen to all of them individually.”

What the industry thinks

Paul Morrell OBE, FRIBA, FRICS, former senior partner in Davis Langdon, former deputy chair of Cabe, founder member of the British Council for Offices, board member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, sailing, opera and contemporary dance enthusiast, is facing what looks like his toughest job yet: acting as the link between the fragmented, fractious world of Whitehall and the equally fragmented and fractious world of construction’s trade and lobbying bodies. But what does that actually involve? Here’s what his peers in the industry think he should concentrate on.
Matt Bell, director of campaigns and education at Cabe

One top priority must be public sector client skills. Without a plan to address this challenge, the rising quality of public building is at risk.
Rosemary Beales, national director of CECA 

We hope the appointment of Mr Morrell will provide momentum toward long-term planning for investment in infrastructure.
Keith Clarke, chairman of the Construction Industry Council

This is a tremendous appointment and it comes at a crucial time. We’re facing multiple challenges in the transition to a low-carbon economy and the engineering and construction sectors must play a fundamental role. It’s therefore vital we have a roadmap for success.
John McDonough, chairman of the CBI Construction Council

We look forward to working with the adviser on the government’s infrastructure investment programme in relation to the UK economy, the sustainability and carbon reduction targets, and training and employment.

The CCA How the role will work

Morrell will be paid £120,000 a year for a three-day-a-week role, although he expects to be working “more like seven”. He will work for two government bodies, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Treasury. He will report directly to the director-general of the BIS and to Nigel Smith, the head of the Office of Government Commerce team in the Treasury.

For administrative reasons, Morrell will be technically employed by the Construction Industry Council, but will be on secondment to government for the full duration of his employment. His initial appointment is for two years.

The post was created as the result of an all-party report by MPs, and it is understood that the Conservatives have privately given assurance that they have no plans to scrap the role if they come to power in the next election.

Morrell has resigned from his role as a consultant to Davis Langdon to avoid conflicts of interest.