Final advice from the final advisor

After three years as the government’s chief construction advisor – a role now scrapped by the “hands off” Tory administration - Peter Hansford bowed out at the end of November. Antony Oliver talks to him about the role and future challenges facing the industry.

Peter Hansford

Peter Hansford succeeded Paul Morrell as the government’s second chief construction advisor in December 2012. His two year appointment was extended by then construction minister Michael Fallon for a third year primarily to ensure that there was a sensible handover period following the May 2015 general election. 

And while Hansford had always been clear that he would step down after three years, the new Tory administration announced in July this year that it was streamlining the Construction Leadership Council as the main point of contact with government.The axe fell on the chief construction advisor role after Hansford’s tenure ended in November.

So having delivered the Construction 2025 industrial strategy, led the industry towards the 2016 BIM level 2 mandate and helped the industry to champion a lower carbon, lower cost future, Hansford is clear that the role has helped evolve the industry-government relationship. And he is also clear that this relationship can never stay the same.

Interview by Antony Oliver 

How do you describe the industry successes over the last three years?

I think the industry is now coming together around a common agenda. Most leading people in the industry know that the agenda is all about people and productivity, about technology and unlocking innovation and it is about cutting out process waste.

Why has the chief construction advisor role been a success?

Pre Paul Morrell [the first chief construction advisor] government didn’t know who to talk to in industry and industry didn’t know who to talk to in government. I think that has changed. Paul did a brilliant job and over the last three years we have really strengthened those channels. The CLC is now a really important forum where government and industry will come together – it will be different but the engagement will continue.

So is the loss of the Chief Construction Advisor role a backward step for the industry? 

No. I think it is a change. Coalition government was all about creating partnership with industry and creating a new industrial strategy for Britain using industry sectors to fuel growth - Construction 2025 was our strategy and it something I’m very proud of. This government is different. It is much more hands off and wants industry to step up and take the lead. It is there to enable but not to lead. In this new world of hands off government and with a restructured CLC the logic goes that you don’t need a chief construction adviser. How sound that logic is is a matter of opinion. But it signals a change.

What have been your highlights?

Creating the Construction 2025. I came to the role at a time when business secretary Vince Cable wanted to engage the industry and he threw that task at me. Working with such a great group of people from across the industry to develop and launch Construction 2025 was a fantastic experience.

What have been your biggest challenges?

You don’t get from A to B in a straight line in government. Sometimes it’s a bit like running in treacle and for an outsider that can be a challenge.

Has the role really ever been a key single point of contact between our sector, ministers, and officials? 

No, Paul described the role as helping to improve the conversation between government and industry and helping each to understand where the other is coming from. It is not a single point of engagement nor should it be and this role is not a government spokesman nor is a lobbyist – it is the glue. You can argue that in this new world you might still need that glue.

Could it have had more teeth?

I don’t think it was ever intended that this was a role to make things happen. Certainly not in a leadership way but perhaps it could facilitate conversations but I think it would have been a mistake to expect the role to make things happen. 

Yet Paul Morrell did manage to introduce a successful mandate for the use of BIM.

I agree – and I am amazed that it happened. But it has made a huge difference so I am delighted. But [with more mandates] we would have been weaker for it because we would have been an industry that only did things when government told it to. That is not very healthy – what other industry does that? 

Will the Construction 2025 targets ever be achieved?

When we created the 2025 ambitions we wanted them to be bold and some people said we hadn’t gone far enough. The truth is government thought we had gone too far. They were jointly decided upon and in the last two years I haven’t heard anyone say they were wrong. Of course some people missed the point – cutting 33% off the cost, for example, is not about cutting margins. I want the industry to be more profitable – this is about doing things differently and cutting out process waste.

What can be done to really engage clients with whole life value?

Some clients are there – Anglian Water and Heathrow for example. But government is not there yet, although it is being actively discussed in Government and the new construction strategy majors on whole life costing. It all comes back to the client – an enlightened client who can see the benefits. [In the public sector] we have capital budgets and operational budgets and it is very difficult in the public sector at the moment to transfer funds from one to the other. But we all know that a little bit more invested from the capital budget can make massive savings in the operating budget. But it needs strong clienting and the rules to allow it.

Are you seeing the industry breaking out of its inherent conservative approach?

Yes but slowly. I think we need a shakeup of the industry with new entrants. They could be Chinese, French or British but they will be businesses that look at our industry and say “you do what?”. There is great strength in having companies that are 150 years old but we also need new thinking. 

How does construction compare to other UK industrial sectors? 

Aerospace is the exemplar industry alongside automotive. But you have to remember that construction is a much bigger player and aerospace and automotive have a small number of big players so these are different industries. But take automotive, they changed because they had a burning bridge as the Japanese came into the sector. Construction never seemed to have that burning bridge – it adapts and morphs. But we need a burning bridge that gets construction to sit up and change. We need a disruptive technology.

Can the National Infrastructure Commission help?

I was surprised and delighted when George Osborne announced that he was appointing Lord Adonis – it was an inspired choice. They have now got an interesting Commission that cuts across party politics and will hopefully be a body that government listens to. It is about joining up decisions – in the past many of the decisions have been taken separately. It all works as a system.

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