The UK Government appointed Paul Morrell OBE as its Chief Construction Adviser in 2009. Speaking to PAUL O’GRADY, he says it’s a “spectacularly difficult” job, but believes that the construction industry can design a better future (even though he’s worried that sounds corny).
Paul Morrell says that he was born dissatisfied, although a recollection from his youth indicates nurture as well as nature was at work. When returning his father’s boat after a summer of sailing, Paul would ensure it was immaculate. It was a matter of pride. Unfailingly, his father would find the only hinge that hadn’t been oiled. Paul says that in his life in Davis Langdon, where he was a partner from the age of 27 until his retirement in 2007, he would always start from the point that the status quo wasn’t good enough.
As the tough times take hold in the UK, he is firmly of the view that better buildings can be delivered at 15-20% less cost. Now the UK Government’s Chief Construction Adviser, his mantra is: less carbon and less cost.
“We already know how to do it but we keep starting from scratch. We come to projects both fresh and fragmented. It’s a bit like the effect of the waves on pebbles on the shore every time the tide washes in and out.”
Paul is on a mission to change the way the industry does its business. He sees a very powerful status quo at work in the design, construct, operate model and, of course, that affronts his desire for a better way. “We need to change the proposition.
It needs to say: ‘here is an offer where we know what it looks like, we know it does the job, we know what it costs and we know what it costs to run’ .
That’s a very powerful proposition but it doesn’t naturally come out of the design, construct, operate model. It needs clients to change the way they buy; and industry to change the way it sells. The Government is probably the only client with enough mass as a single purchaser to influence behaviour on the supply side. And it’s not a simple reversal of the model. Between the two approaches is a genuinely integrated and parallel way of working which uses skills from deep inside the supply chain.”
Morrell is convinced that the answers lie in integration and communication but that the culture of an industry founded on Victorian relationships of master and tradesman, and of rivalries between competing professionals, is a barrier to that change.
“For the first 35 years of my working life, the master/servant positions were very clear. Most contractors thought most architects were tossers; and most architects thought most contractors were villains.”
However, he sees that is changing and that through private finance initiatives (the UK equivalent of what are known in Ireland as public private partnerships) architects and contractors have found it’s not such a bad thing working together.
“For enlightened architects and contractors, the effort now goes solely into better buildings.”
Making a plan for prudent reform
Communications between Government and the construction industry can be difficult. Paul’s view is that communication seems to work best around specific projects, so he converted his plan for prudent reform of the industry into a project. The strategy is to engage everyone through a shared understanding of what the problems are and these are articulated as:
■ silo-based thinking;
■ a lack of integration in planning and execution; and,
■ fractures in the value chain.
He has found some tedious arguments against reform in the form of institutions wanting to cling to their roles, but mostly there is consensus around the common ground of problems to be solved.
“Preaching and shouting in this environment doesn’t work. We need to reward new behaviour and the most obvious reward the Government has got is a body of work.”
So is the UK Government – and by extension, its Chief Construction Adviser – succeeding in the process of changing the industry? “We have agreement on the diagnosis element: we agree on the problems we are facing. We have agreement and support on the prescription: those things that we need to do to fix the problems. We are now approaching the litmus test: implementation.”
Paul’s experience of the industry leads him to be very wary of this stage – and of the unbelievable power of his old nemesis, the status quo. “We have a legacy of the old ways in how we do our business, and in the nature of the relationships we maintain. The test now is: will behaviour change to align with our new strategy, and allow the implementation of a new way of doing business?”
Leveraging value for a political win
To show good faith, the UK Government has committed to publish the pipeline of business that it is conducting, and the stage that each project has reached. It is to contain every construction project for every Government department. Part of that process is to get departments to be cost-led, in a new way.
As Morrell explains: “Government needs to buy whole-life value at less capital cost. For a political win, you must show that you built that school for less.”
In order to achieve that, every department needs to undergo a benchmarking process. So far, only “two or three” of the departments have completed benchmarking and really know where their money is going. The rest have to have it completed by the end of autumn.
“And, as a taxpayer, before you gave some more money to a department, I think you would really prefer to know where the last lot went. Then if you know what you can pay for a school and you know that you can get a good one, you can get it right: the right product at the right price.”
The next step is trialling the new way of working with some projects. These, says Morrell, will have integrated teams, challenged by benchmarking, working collaboratively and not allowed to throw away whole-life value. “And I think the industry will judge whether we really mean business in terms of change by whether we come up with a sufficient volume of projects where we are trying new things.”
Getting to the tipping point
Paul Morrell also believes that another real test lies in staying with a new way of doing business until you reach the great tipping point. And that allows for the fact there will be many parts of the industry that will continue to carry out a multitude of small private projects in exactly the same way that they have always worked.
“What we’re trying to do, in reality, is being done in bits: some jobs have got their cash flow right; some are using building information modelling; some are using collaborative teams. It’s a case of bringing that all together and then the projects that go that way have to show better results because politicians, who are the guardians of taxpayers’ money, have to be able to show that they are making it go further.”
Being the Chief Construction Adviser
So why hasn’t there been a ‘you’ before? “I have to say from the inside, it is a spectacularly difficult job. The worry that was expressed to me by the Director General of one of the departments I work with, was that they were not great believers in the intention of the role. They thought either someone would be a loose cannon without an understanding of how things work in Government, or they would be ineffective. It would be very easy to be a loose cannon but that doesn’t work. It helps to have come from a partnership because the underlying understanding was that life is a negotiation. The cry has always been for a construction minister, but I asked where would they sit? There are 17 Government departments with different pressures and different plans.So it’s a difficult balance between being helpful to departments and having sufficient mechanisms for having decisions made.”
Despite all of that, he believes that collaborative efforts are bearing fruit through the strategy for agreed prudent reform of the industry and says: “Corny though it sounds, we can design a better future for the industry.”
The Morrell view on…
…the downturn as a catalyst for change
“Had I stepped into this role five years ago I would not have succeeded because everyone seemed to be succeeding. The industry was busy, the Government had plenty of money, and so there was no impetus for change.”
…the effect of the downturn on relationships
“Government has to build but it hasn’t got any money. Industry wants to build but it hasn’t got any work. That is the foundation for a collaborative relationship where we say: ok, how can we help each other?”
… carrot rather than stick
“The one powerful agreement we have in Government is that if we can build schools for 20% less, that money stays in the industry. That money stays in the construction programme. It’s important that there is no punishment for doing better.”
… respect for construction
“I asked the Director General of the Department of Business Innovation & Skills why is the industry so under respected inside Government? I can boil down his answer to: ‘It just doesn’t look like an industry that has a plan for its future’.”
“Construction is very reactive to demand – it could never have invented the iPod. So, in a way, we need iConstruction.”
…building information modelling
“I think it will be transformative beyond our current imaginings – I really do – and in ten years there will be business models that are unrecognisable from what we do now. And it will be international.”
…communication with Government
“What is the structure by which you develop a shared agenda which has heft across Government and the whole of industry? And I am not sure that I know the answer. So I have not succeeded in designing the future beyond my tenure but it will be a big part of the conversation from here on.”
Power and politics in the construction industry
Paul Morrell was born in Yorkshire, grew up in Lincolnshire and went to boarding school in London. He has two sisters, but was the only boy in the family, being the son of David and Joan Morrell. His father was a quantity surveyor who went into civil engineering contracting and was, it is evident, a huge influence.
David Morrell worked all his professional life with Mitchell Construction until they went bust as a result of one project in Africa – the Kariba Dam. He mentions that his father wrote a very good book about that project. It was entitled Indictment: Power & Politics in the Construction Industry, perhaps giving a clue to Paul’s later drive for collaboration and a better way of doing business.
After school he wanted to do a gap year, but his father sent him to work on Fawley Power Station for a year before he started college. The trade-off was a year spent sailing to, around, and back from the Carribbean after graduation from the College of Estate Management from which he qualified as a quantity surveyor.
He joined Davis Langdon, was a partner by the age of 27, and stayed with them until he retired in 2007. In 2009 he was appointed as Chief Construction Adviser by the Government, a role which he will hold until December 1, 2012. In the early- to mid-’seventies, Paul and his friends were some of the few English visitors to the south west of Ireland. As a result, he has a very warm but also well-rounded view of Ireland.
Part of the reason for those trips was golf, which he still plays occasionally. However, his time is at a premium because in addition to his Government role, he also serves as Chairman of the Siobhan Davies Dance Company (he likes contemporary dance), is a board member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and he and his wife, Shirlie, have an enthusiasm for opera.