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‘We must make the UK as efficient as possible’

At a time when the government is being accused of allowing green issues to slip down the political agenda, the same cannot be said of Construction Products Association chief executive Diana Montgomery.

With a doctorate in the environment and waste management, it is no surprise that the former chemist, who officially took over from Michael Ankers three weeks ago, sees sustainability as an essential part of encouraging innovation in the construction industry.

In a wide-ranging interview with Construction News about her new role, she returns to the topic often.

But, peppering her sentences with words such as “bizarre”, “crazy” and “perplexing”, she is open about the flaws she sees in the Green Deal and the potential impact on the firms she represents.

“The government’s targets are pretty clear and one of the things we keep having to say to them is ‘don’t tinker with those targets. Tell us what you want us to get to… but just don’t keep moving the goalposts’. Time after time they do that,” she says.

Tariff debacle

Dr Montgomery points to the Feed-in Tariffs “debacle” as an example. Financial incentives for householders to install solar panels were controversially cut, sparking a series of legal challenges and resulting in significant consequences for firms that had already invested in the technology.

Instead, she praises the way Germany and France set manufacturing strategies lasting 20 years, avoiding the UK’s typical “boom-bust” cycle associated with political upheaval.

“If you look at my companies, many of them are competing globally, many of them competing against imports coming into the UK not necessarily on a level playing field,” she says.

“So we’ve got to get the UK as efficient as possible and not [leave firms] working with a lead weight around their necks.”

Asked whether there is anything construction firms can do to help get the Green Deal moving, she replies: “I think industry’s done a lot and they need a bit of certainty from government now.”

She believes that industry secondments to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, coupled with feedback from the CPA and others on consultation responses, means it is now up to Whitehall to get it off the ground, working with major construction players.

However, Dr Montgomery wants her organisation to continue to play a leading part in the policy debate, and this summer the CPA will examine the feasibility of linking stamp duty to energy performance certificate ratings to increase Green Deal take-up.

A bigger deal

The government is considering whether stamp duty deductions could be funded in a £200 million incentives package, but Dr Montgomery says “it doesn’t have to cost anything”.

This is because, as well as reducing stamp duty by, say, 1 per cent for those with a ‘B’ EPC rating, she thinks those with a lower rating could potentially be charged more.

She believes this could increase the amount of ready cash that homebuyers have at the point of sale, helping to stimulate the housing market as well as encouraging people to take out Green Deal packages.

Dr Montgomery will be calling for 5 per cent VAT on all, rather than just some, Green Deal measures - the CPA is “completely perplexed” that others attract the standard 20 per cent rate.

She also says it is “bizarre” that there may be no reliable information on how many homes have had measures installed.

It is envisaged that the Green Deal oversight body will produce annual reports covering the numbers and an analysis of those registered, but Dr Montgomery worries this information will not be passed to providers, which would be “absolutely crazy”.

How will the CPA ensure its messages are taken seriously by decision-makers?

Dr Montgomery wants the whole industry to have a higher profile and says she is “fed up” with the relatively low level of interest ministers take in construction compared with the aviation and automotive industries.

She says: “In terms of policy, the CPA definitely punches above its weight. In terms of the UK understanding what our industry does and how important it is for the UK, we definitely punch below our weight.”

Speaking with a more unified voice with help with this, as will ending the monthly “furore” over differing figures for output data, she believes.

“I’ve been really struck by how many voices there are,” she adds.

The CPA will work with the UK Contractors Group and others to develop joint messages and to highlight the achievements of flagship projects such as the Olympics and Crossrail.

Investment drive

Another cause she wants to champion is the importance of national capital investment - something her predecessor Michael Ankers was also vocal about.

This is arguably even more important after fingers were pointed at construction last month when the UK fell into a double-dip recession.

“I don’t think you can blame the industry when one of our major customers takes a huge chunk out of their spend,” she says. “The government’s got to think very hard about capital spend and what sort of UK it wants as a legacy.”

Revised Office for National Statistics figures published last week revealed activity dropped by even more than first thought, with the biggest decrease (15.9 per cent) being in infrastructure.

“If you don’t invest in infrastructure then you can’t expect the UK to be a globally competitive country,” she states.

Greater diversity

Marketing the industry more effectively will involve making it more diverse, Dr Montgomery believes.

She says she has not experienced any difficulties as a woman in a predominantly male world but feels the industry would be strengthened by attracting more people from different ethnic backgrounds.

This will come down to better promotion of construction careers, highlighting the fact they often lead to well-paid and secure jobs, but will also require tackling “real problems” with literacy and numeracy standards among school-leavers in general.

“I watched a programme a few weeks ago about the 1950s,” she says. “As B-list celebrities are now, science was in the ’50s. If it was scientific or technical it was the bees’ knees. We need to get back to that.”

 

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