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Friday01 August 2014

Paul Morrell’s low-carbon mission

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Reducing carbon is a great chance for the construction industry to change its “crap” image, says government chief construction adviser Paul Morrell.

There can be few people apart from real policy wonks who could claim to be excited by the coalition government’s new Office for Budget Responsibility, but Paul Morrell is one of them. The chief construction adviser to the government believes this may just be the engine that can turn the government’s targets for carbon reduction into a realisable plan.

“It should start to take account of the fact that every year that we don’t do what we should, we will run up a bill that we will have to pay,” Morrell says. “If you don’t upgrade, you will run up another bill in flood, fire, famine – which you have to account for. That is what budget responsibility will look like.”

This approach would be based on the findings of the Stern Review, published in 2006, which argued that the financial benefits of action on climate change outweighed the costs. “We should revisit Stern and decide if we believe him,” Morrell says.

Such thinking is pertinent to the success of Morrell’s big mission as government chief construction adviser – to enable the construction industry to meet the government’s low-carbon transition plan, which aspires to an 80% cut in carbon emission by 2050. When Morrell was appointed last December, Peter Mandelson, then Labour’s business secretary, told him the challenge was “Are we fit for the new world?” In response to this, Morrell set up a Low Carbon Construction Innovation and Growth Team, which produced its interim Emerging Findings in March. The final report will appear in November.

Emerging Findings – key challenges for a low-carbon construction industry

- Develop new buildings that help people live more energy efficiently
• Decarbonise own businesses including supply chain
• Stimulate demand and supply chain to retrofit existing buildings
• Equate low-carbon to high performance
• Attract the brightest people to create a more progressive, collaborative construction industry
• Build new infrastructure to support “clean” energy and sustainable transport

It’s a massive challenge that requires, according to the interim report, the biggest change in construction since Victorian times. The affable Morrell is obviously enjoying the task, although he won’t be drawn on whether it’s achievable. Instead, his focus is on setting the industry on the right path to meet its goal.

The major challenge, he says, is in domestic buildings, partly because they consume the bulk of carbon, and partly because he believes the market will help to sort out non-domestic buildings, particularly since so many are now on short leases.

In housing, the challenge is enormous. Probably around 22 million of our stock of 26 million homes will need upgrading (some will be hopeless cases and need replacing). And 40% of this work will need doing by 2020.

“There’s no supply chain to do this,” says Morrell. “There aren’t enough white van men. How do you organise the work, reliably, and how do you ensure compliance? If we don’t get it right, we could spend £300 billion without getting the result we need.”

The construction industry, Morrell says, will not lead the changes that will have to happen, although he would love it to do so. Instead, he thinks, the drivers will have to come from government, through regulation. And this is a government averse to the idea of regulation. “How can it be persuaded that regulation is the most effective way of doing the job? Regulation frequently creates markets,” he says, as it has already with Combi boilers and double glazing.

Morrell, a quantity surveyor by training and experience and a former deputy chair of Cabe, believes house renovation is one area where supply chains will, by necessity, be truly integrated. And he does not see architects as the natural leaders of that process, although he says: “There are many different types of architects. People who are interested in how buildings are put together and how they can be taken apart will find it appealing.”

Nor does he have much sympathy with architects’ complaints about their loss of status. “To me, the bits of power that architects are losing are the bits that are not valuable,” he says. “Architecture is about how spaces are made and how they relate to people, and how you put them together. Too many architects have tended to see power in relation to their position in the hierarchy.”

He has evidently embraced this job wholeheartedly but it was not what he was expecting when he retired as head of Davis Langdon, where he had been all his working life. He had a busy “pro bono” life, including the chairmanship of the Siobhan Davies Dance company, and a place on the board of Tate Modern. “I thought I would help with some start-ups,” he says.

Instead, he was approached about this new job. “I turned it down a couple of times,” he says, largely because at that stage the role was as a director, not adviser, which he felt would be disastrous. Then he went for an interview and “I found myself doing the job,” which is for an initial two-year term. He sees his main task as “improving the quality of the conversation between government and the private sector” and has been shocked by the way that the industry looks to government to solve problems it should be able to sort out itself.

It’s still early days, and Morrell is keeping his powder dry ahead of the November report. But if he can find a way for the industry to adapt itself to a sustainable future, he believes it could do wonders for its image.

“Everybody you meet in construction says they wouldn’t be in any other industry,” he says, “yet the perception of the industry is crap. Carbon is a clear challenge, and an attractive one. We need to get clever people and better ideas. We haven’t ever had a chance like carbon.”

He may not have wanted this job originally, but he is clearly relishing it now.

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