Geoff Cooper: industrial strategy is required for construction.

Geoff Cooper takes on role as chairman of the CPA

Published:  08 November, 2012

NORTHAMPTON: Travis Perkins' chief executive, Geoff Cooper, has been appointed by the board of the Construction Products Association as the organisation's new non-executive chairman with effect from today. Mr Cooper has been a member of the CPA's Industry Principals' Council for the last seven years.

The CPA provides considerable benefits to its members, such as Travis Perkins, through its economic and sector modelling, its leadership in creating a sustainable built environment, political engagement, industry communications.

Travis Perkins welcomed the opportunity, through this appointment, to play a leading role in advancing the cause of the construction industry in the wider economy and with Government.

The CPA's members include all of the largest construction products manufacturers and distributors as well as a wide range of other construction-related trade associations. Its members have a combined turnover in excess of £50bn and represent around 4% of the UK's gross domestic product.

Commenting on his appointment, Mr Cooper, said: "It is a great privilege to become chairman of one of the UK's leading trade associations. The Construction Products Association is rightly held in high esteem for the quality and accuracy of its research and forecasting. In terms of economic recovery, the construction industry is very much part of the solution and the Association's input to the debate about this country's future prosperity is key to policy stances that Government takes in the period ahead."

At the CPA's Autumn Lunch, Mr Cooper gave his maiden speech. He praised outgoiong chairman Bill Bolsover who, even after stepping down, has agreed to continue working with the Association to maintain momentum.

"After five years of post-Lehman economic turmoil and the toughest period in construction that anyone can remember, the need for a single voice could not be more clear," Mr Cooper said.

"There seems to be almost universal agreement that construction is not only crucial to the economic foundations of the country, but also that it should be a major part of any economic recovery.

"Business leaders, media commentators, senior civil servants, regulators, and politicians of all colour agree on the benefits of getting Britain building.

"And yet, compared with five years ago, we sit here today with 40% fewer houses being built, 50% fewer people moving house, 400 000 fewer people employed in construction, and £5bn less spent directly on construction by government.

"Nobody could argue with the need to get the deficit down after the near-bankrupt state the country was in four years ago, but cutting capital spending while allowing current spending to increase is a weird way of trying to get economically fit again.

"Something must be missing. There must be some crossed wires somewhere, If everyone  agrees that it would be a good idea to put the ball in the net, why is nobody prepared to kick the ball off the penalty spot?

"Vince Cable thinks that what is missing is an 'industrial strategy, and not only has he said we are going to have one, he’s put construction in the most favoured sector slot – so, we’re to h'ave a strategic partnership with the Government, as a key enabling sector in the UK economy. I think we should welcome this new policy," Mr Cooper stated.

"This time, we desperately need to make this effective. The Government has set out a framework aimed at making industrial strategy a success, and our voice must be heard. This framework has identified that stable economic fundamentals – growth, access to finance, efficient markets for resources such as labour and energy – are vital prerequisites. It has made clear where specific interventions – for example in skills, or in innovation – can make a real difference across industries.

"It has established tests for ensuring that support for particular sectors won’t be wasted on propping up industries that can’t compete on a world stage. And, it has set out the level of intervention each sector deserves, from light touch to strategic partnership, to provide a prioritisation for the money and man hours spent on intervention."

So far, so good, Mr Cooper conceded – but the construction industry still had the hard slog of defining the industrial strategy. That is where the CPA comes in, he said.  

"I believe there are three critical things we need to do to exploit what is probably a once in a generation opportunity. First, we need to engage. That’s why Bill’s efforts on the 'one voice' initiative have been so important. To back this up, we need to offer our practical help and input to the BIS officials who are going to be working on this – and personally, I am making an offer today to become actively involved, at whatever level is going to produce a real result, in the work BIS is going to undertake.

"Second, we need to be clear about what a good industrial strategy for construction would look like, and define outcomes that we can then use to test whether any strategy had been a success or a failure.

"Third, we need to steer the strategy away from just concentrating on the grand initiatives beloved of political speech writers and towards the quality and quantity of the hundreds of small connections and circumstances that are often the spark of success in business.

"Evidence abounds that in the fertile ground of favourable economic conditions, small events are the seed that grows into significant and successful enterprises – supportive lending officers that support medium-sized businesses, who are the largest contributor to growth, exposure to really great role models, eye opening work experience, teachers who understand and respect business, and parents with ambition and hope for their kids.

"These are matters that I suspect most of us would not regard as natural territory for business – and yet the evidence that they produce success and entrepreneurialism is incontrovertible, Mr Cooper said. The recent report from Lord Heseltine, 'No Stone Unturned in Pursuit of Growth', he added, was an excellent launch point for a comprehensive upgrading of the impact of these small events.

"We have a role model for this ourselves in the form of Business in the Community, and the impact it has had on business’ engagement with our communities. Lets see what the Ggovernment is going to do to implement the report's recommendations – but work with it as much as we can. There is, as always, a lot to do – but this time it seems there is more chance of getting a good return."

The fly in this particular ointment is the General Election in 2015, Mr Cooper pointed out. "What happens if loads of valuable work is done, and then gets swept away by a new administration?"

He left the 500 guests at the lunch with food for thought: "Could you say that industrial strategy is any less important than monetary policy? Monetary policy has, to mostly universal approval, been removed from the temporal tampering of politicians. Shouldn’t industrial strategy be afforded the same protection? Which of our political colleagues here is going to be brave enough to put that forward as party policy for their next manifesto?"

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