Build the UK’s new chair: ‘Our industry is getting sexier’


Paul Cossell says the green enthusiasm of younger generations provides an opportunity for building

Build UK’s new chairman admits to having many flaws. Chief among them is a tendency to impatience. Paul Cossell recounts Building News that his restlessness is motivated by a desire for movement and progress.

“I was attracted to Build UK because it does things. It gets things done,” he says of the representative body which claims to represent two-fifths of construction stakeholders in the UK. I’m very pro-change, change and improvement, so when I was offered the role, I jumped at it.

Ahead of Build UK’s annual general meeting at the end of September, Cossell – who was appointed chairman in January – shares with NC how the impact of COVID-19 and rising environmental awareness are finally giving the impetus for long-awaited industry modernization that previously seemed unachievable.

“It was horrible”

Cossell joined Build UK as a board member in September 2020, months into the pandemic. At the time, he was the general manager of ISG.

“It was awful,” he recalled of the industry upheaval caused by COVID. “Your brain and your heart were spinning: what was the right thing to do? Ask Build UK to offer safe operating procedures to ensure the safety of people, but also [to] keeping the economy going…the nation relied on the maintenance of the built environment. It was extremely powerful.

The pandemic has largely changed attitudes towards systemic change. Build UK, along with its professional counterpart the Construction Leadership Council, acted as “a glue” for the traditionally fragmented industry, he recalls.

“This glue can improve the industry,” says Cossell, keen to build on the improved collaboration seen during the pandemic. He sees Build UK playing a key role in coordinating the industry’s move towards modern building methods and improved levels of building safety. But is this a sentiment shared by all members of Build UK, which is a membership-based body?

“We’ve seen a net increase,” says Cossell, commenting on the amount of membership revenue generated by contractors, trade associations and specialists. This, he argues, indicates that the value of the industry body has increased amid the common challenges of the pandemic.

However, some seem less convinced. Britain’s biggest contractor, Balfour Beatty, ended his Build UK membership in July. No formal reason was given at the time, but NC understands that the £7bn business has not seen the value of membership, given that its growing influence as a business has given it significant influence in government circles.

“We can help save the planet. We can really change the dial”

Paul Cossel

The scale at which companies such as Balfour Beatty operate can pose a challenge to promoting membership, according to Cossell. The Build UK website names 35 member contractors, but Morgan Sindall, Amey and M Group Services – who are among the UK’s 10 largest contractors – are absent.

“When [contractors’] the projects reach a certain scale, they sometimes believe that they have their own voice and that they have their own leverage,” he notes.

Balfour Beatty’s move could also be seen as symptomatic of the fragmented nature of the industry, which Cossell says is another challenge for member retention. “The industry is not used to speaking with one voice,” he says.

But Cossell is relaxed about the absence of many heavy hitters from his roster. He says it’s more important to think of Build UK membership not as something that’s only for Tier 1s; instead, Cossell notes that it cuts through the different layers of the construction supply chain.

“I think you have to accept that you won’t get the full capability of all the layers,” he says. “As long as you have representation through the layers, then I think you’re capable of having a voice.”

Calling the next generation

Cossell joined ISG 25 years ago, after a decade with residential contractor Walter Lilly – a stint that was preceded by three years with specialist stonemason Szerelmey. It is therefore well placed to follow the evolution of the built environment during this period. He thinks that the growing concern of younger generations for ecological issues offers a great opportunity to attract new talent.

“I think our industry is getting sexier,” he says. “We can help save the planet. With the giga-factories [being built for electric-car batteries] and alternative sources of green energy, and all of those things, we can really change the dial. If we embrace modern building methods, we start to get smarter, smoother, and it starts to get even more attractive.

The key to embracing these changes is to evolve our own attitudes and recognize when to change, admits Cossell, who reflects on his own development as a leader: “I was always frustrated and wanted to change things faster. And everyone around me was like ‘you’re changing things too fast’.

Over the years, however, he realized the importance of bringing others on this journey. “His [about] people – the ability of people to accept and embrace change,” he insists.

At Build UK he feels he is in good company when it comes to driving change, with like-minded colleagues such as Managing Director Suzannah Nicol and Deputy Managing Director Jo Fautley.

“They’re even more impatient than me,” Cossell says.

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