Paul Morrell hits out at government’s green record

Lack of commitment jeopardising UK industry’s sustainability reputation says outgoing construction adviser

Outgoing chief construction adviser Paul Morrell has said the government’s lack of commitment to green policy is endangering the UK construction industry’s global leadership on sustainability.

Morrell, who retired as chief construction adviser this month, said the green agenda was being hit by a failure by the Treasury to believe it provided an opportunity for economic growth, and described his “massive frustration” at the cancellation of the roll-out of Display Energy Certificates.

In an interview with Building to mark his retirement, Morrell also said that just 11 complaints have been made to a government-instituted “mystery shopper” hot-line designed to expose abuses of procurement and payment in government supply chains.

Morrell, whose first task as CCA on his appointment in December 2009 was to conduct an in-depth review into greening the construction industry, said: “We have a [good] reputation [in this sector]. I think we risk losing that. Clearly it’s going to be threatened if we actually declare to the world that we have no intention of wanting to lead.”

Morrell suggested this risk was down to the Treasury’s failure to see the opportunity in investing in green technology. He said: “If I’ve got a single major frustration it’s that of the obvious disconnect between the belief in business that you can make opportunity out of this [green agenda], and the very obvious belief in Treasury that it isn’t a game worth playing.

“There clearly is no belief inside Treasury that there is real opportunity of growth.”

Morrell’s comments come following growing tensions in the government over environmental policy, with Liberal Democrat energy secretary Ed Davey being forced to water down ambitions for renewable energy generation, and chancellor George Osborne claiming that “we’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business”.

Industry critics have pointed to the government’s failure to rapidly roll out the Green Deal, its U-turns on feed-in tariffs, and the cancelling of an industry- supported plan for all commercial buildings to display publicly the amount of energy being consumed. Morrell added: “[It was a] massive frustration to me seeing Display Energy Certificates being canned.”

John Alker, director of policy at the UK Green Building Council, said: “Paul is hardly some wacky tree-hugger, he’s a voice of reason and pragmatism so if this doesn’t sound very loud alarm bells ringing in the ears of ministers, then frankly nothing else will.”

Sustainability consultant David Strong described Morrell’s comments as “withering” and “devastating”, and that they were “another nail in the coffin of the government’s claim to be the greenest administration ever.”

A Treasury spokesperson said the government was “committed to making progress on climate change and the environment,” pointing to the formation of the Green Investment Bank in October, and the UK Guarantees scheme, which he said will support green growth.

Morrell also called on specialist contractors to come forward with evidence of payment abuses by main contractors on government contracts if it genuinely was a major problem, noting that only a handful of complaints had been made to the government’s “mystery shopper” line.

He said: “It’s hard to see how much more government could have done itself about this. [Subcontractors] are reluctant to stand up for themselves. They do need to say who and where.”

Thoughtful strategist

Paul Morrell, who was this month replaced by Peter Hansford, has had his frustrations as the UK’s first ever chief construction adviser, but he can be proud of presiding over the creation of a detailed, thoughtful and coherent construction strategy for the government.

The strategy was not only a no-brainer for the industry to rally behind, but also - vitally - included an implementation plan and timetable for delivery.

There are two things the industry will most remember him for. In the short term it will be for successfully arguing against the siren voices calling for the government to use its buying power to slash contracting rates and return to a world of lowest cost tendering - though structural reform of the industry is needed if this threat isn’t to return.

Secondly, it will be his role in introducing a sceptical industry to Building Information Modelling – something it now appears to be grasping with both hands.

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