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Paul Morrell: We need a plan to tackle housing waiting lists

Former chief construction adviser Paul Morrell has claimed the UK “doesn’t really have a plan” for housing families on UK waiting lists.

Speaking to CN after finishing his three-year term as chief construction adviser, Mr Morrell said he was more optimistic than he had ever been in his 40-year construction career about the potential for positive change in the industry.

But he called for a more unified industry leadership to make a more effective case to government, and warned that for all the talk of major infrastructure in the highest echelons of Whitehall, the focus on schools and housing must not be lost.

He said: “I wouldn’t want to abandon the focus on social infrastructure. It sometimes seems as though we don’t really have a plan for housing 1.9 million families on the waiting list.

“We don’t really have a plan for not just replacing or renewing schools we have, but providing another three-quarters of a million new places to cope with growth.

“There’s some big, tough things that we can’t quite get to grips with in a world with no money.”

He added: “Having shouted at the government to make more infrastructure and make more work because that’s what we need, I think the corollary of that is industry needs to start looking at how it could contribute to social infrastructure in a more affordable way.”

Mr Morrell said he has no firm plans for what he intends to do next, but will continue to work on a low-carbon routemap to be presented next March through the Green Construction Board.

He added that he will, for the most part, “probably stay away from government”.

“That’s not because I’ve had enough of them, or that they’ve had enough of me I hope, but because it gets complicated,” he said.

“Some days you drag yourself home on your hands and knees. Others you think just maybe you’re breaking through”

Paul Morrell

“I hate those examples of people who are working in defence procurement and the next day they’re working with a helicopter company.”

Over his three years in the job, Mr Morrell oversaw publication of the first government construction strategy and pipelines of work, as well as influential reports on low-carbon construction and BIM.

Asked if he had enjoyed the challenge in the role, he said: “Not all of it, but when did anybody?

“Some days you drag yourself home on your hands and knees. Other days you think maybe, just maybe you’re breaking through.

“The best answer is to say I’m really glad I’ve done it. It’s felt to me like a worthwhile, useful few years of my life,” he added.

Morrell questions Heathrow timetable

Paul Morrell said he would be “amazed” if the government can resolve the aviation capacity debate by 2015.

He said there were “few more fascinating challenges for the current government” but that he would be “amazed if they can resolve it in the time they have got – the only decision you could make in that time is the decision to expand Heathrow”.

The government has appointed Sir Howard Davies to head up a commission investigating airport capacity with a full report to be published in 2015.

Some people, including London mayor Boris Johnson, have criticised the length of time it will make to compile the report’s recommendations.

However, Mr Morrell pointed to the range of questions posed by aviation capacity constraints, from whether a hub airport is needed, to the number of jobs that could go ahead through the creation of a proposed Thames Estuary airport, as evidence that the 2015 deadline is the “minimum” amount of time needed.

He added that there were “few more fascinating challenges” for the government than resolving the issue of freeing up aviation capacity.

Former Institution of Civil Engineers president Peter Hansford has taken over as chief construction adviser, and Mr Morrell said it was important he had been involved with the government’s construction reform as chairman of its infrastructure steering committee.

Mr Morrell pointed to the work being done through the Education Funding Agency’s reform of school standards as a positive indicator of change occurring within government in becoming a better client, through “being accountable for its own programme” in areas such as tightening space standards and ensuring schools cost “substantially less” per square metre.

He also hailed work being done on reform within the Department of Health, revealed by CN last month, where contractors on the £4 billion ProCure21+ programme are collaborating on standardisation plans to meet the department’s 14.1 per cent savings target by 2014/15.

He said: “Forty years on I’ve not felt more optimistic about the fact that for all the ghastliness of the current marketplace, I have never seen as much potential for the benefit of change.”

A ‘single voice’ for industry:

Mr Morrell has been part of the talks to resolve the Strategic Forum’s future. CN revealed in August that he had proposed a new advisory council to the Government Construction Board, to be led by Balfour Beatty chief executive Ian Tyler.

The forum has since appointed a new chairman in Bill Bolsover and resolved to increase its conversations with government.

Mr Morrell welcomed the move: “I never believed in the idea of a single voice. There are too many conversations going on from everything from the macroeconomics to what’s the best way of handling asbestos.

“I did an estimate recently that there are probably around 300 people actively, continuously engaged with the industry in the conversation with government.”

Mr Morrell pointed to the need for a body to look at ways to improve the industry on issues such as health and safety, but pointed out that trade bodies all have health and safety representatives and that is leading to the “waste of having multiple conversations”.

He added: “The CBI can never be that. It’s a very effective lobbying body, and always will be.

“I would want it in my armoury if I was a contractor, but it can’t do all the stuff about the industry being competitive, improving its offer, being safer.

“I’m hoping that Bill being a fan of being more active will lead it to the right place, the right people will see it and that makes it a much more interesting party to talk to.

“The government is much more interested in an industry that is sorting itself out than one that is complaining and saying ‘give me more work’.”

Mr Morrell disagreed with the concept of ‘a single voice’ for industry as a whole given the sheer number of interested parties, but said companies needed to speak in unison.

He said he was “astonished” by the number of times he had seen industry spend its short time in front of ministers arguing with each other.

“Surely there’s a better industry than the one we’ve been working in? I think it’s in reach,” he said.

“But it calls for leadership to seize that moment and then to have the grown-up conversation with government about what it has to do and what the reward would be for taxpayers.

“It calls for leadership that I have not seen across the industry. There are terrific people, great individuals and businesses I would invest in.

“But in terms of a shared sense of moving the industry to a better place, I don’t see much of it.” 

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