After five years of feeling sidelined by ministers, the construction industry seems to have found a genuine champion in Margaret Hodge. Mark Leftly went to meet one of life’s enthusiasts
It’s been a long time since the construction industry was represented by a minister it actually liked. That was Nick Raynsford, an affable, intelligent man who understood construction and housebuilding, but was shuffled out of the job in 2001. Since then we’ve have Alun Michael (more interested in other industries), Nigel Griffiths (oddball) and Brian Wilson (too much else on his plate). Now, it seems that the industry may have finally got another champion.
Margaret Hodge became minister of state for industry and the regions in May. What she occasionally lacks in detailed knowledge, she makes up for in enthusiasm – she namechecks big companies and praises landmark projects such as Laing O’Rourke’s Heathrow Terminal 5.
Compare that with Michael’s interview with this magazine last year, in which he declined to reveal what he thought of the PFI, then went on to state that the government had become a good client. Two months later, the industry was stunned by the Department of Health’s emergency review of PFI hospital projects. Nice one, Alun. Hodge, on the other hand, acknowledges that bid costs and project delays are problems for contractors: “It’s an issue of concern, particularly with health PFIs. Stability in public expenditure is hugely beneficial to construction,” she says.
This is Hodge’s first interview as construction minister. Building only gets 30 minute slot, but it’s enough to get a measure of her. She is likeable, laughing as she bemoans the fact that the photographer is going to snap her on a day she woke up at 4.30am. Her old neighbour, architect Robin Nicholson, describes her as “one of life’s enthusiasts and very bright”.
Her press officer seems more concerned than she is that the interview will go as badly. He needn’t worry – he has briefed her well. Hodge soon lists the issues she is keen to work on in the coming months: improving the government as a client, safety, improving skills in the workforce and campaigning for the use of whole-life costs. She also touches on the need to develop a speedier, clearer PFI process and to get more women into the industry.
It’s a fairly exhaustive list. It’s also overly ambitious. As one senior industry figure put it: “People call her the construction minister, but she isn’t – she’s the minister for loads of things, including construction.” In fact she is responsible for a whole raft of industries from car making to She also has to look after the regional development agencies and corporate social responsibility. Then there is the little matter of steering a company law reform bill through parliament. So although it’s Britain’s biggest industry, it seems that construction can only occupy a small part of Hodge’s working day.
Possibly the only person who strongly disagrees with this assessment is the minister herself. Sipping coffee from her “brilliant boss” mug (a present from her underlings from when she was in charge of employment and welfare reform at the Department for Work and Pensions) Hodge scoffs at the notion that construction is lost in her empire. In fact, much of her time will be spent on matters concerning construction, if not the industry itself. For example, most of her time in the last parliamentary session was spent on the company law bill – a massive piece of legislation that will, among many other things, codify directors’ responsibilities. She will continue to usher this bill through the commons and the lords in the next parliamentary year.
“The reform bill has important implications for construction,” she says. For instance small companies will no longer have to go though the bureaucracy of annual general meetings or appoint company secretaries. “Don’t think that it isn’t relevant to construction – it is.”
The industry will also benefit from being grouped with others, because this enables Hodge to pool all their concerns and then to deal with them together. Benefits for one are likely to have benefits for all. She later points out that it’s common sense to have major industries in a single brief, citing a recent visit to China, Japan and South Korea during which she visited car factories, aerospace facilities and a 12.3km bridge just outside of Seoul that is being constructed by Amec. She enthuses about this project, gabbling on with a certain child-like wonder: “They build the pillars off-site, and then transport them by ship! It’s a fantastic engineering feat.”
Another name and project check, another demonstration that she’s committed to the construction industry – but it’s questionable how long will she be able to show this level of engagement. Hodge is seen as a Blairite, and although she is arguably the biggest name that has held the construction brief under New Labour, hers is a star in decline.
“There’s a sense that this is her last ministerial job,” says one industry insider. “When Gordon Brown comes in and there’s a list of jobs and people to give them to, she’ll be a bit long in the tooth.”
Her youthful looks, exuberant manner and impeccable dress sense belie the fact that she is a 62-year-old grandmother and has been in politics for more than 30 years, first elected into Islington council in 1973.
There was also that business with the British National party (BNP) before the local government elections in May this year – Hodge said that 80% of white families in her Barking constituency were “tempted” to vote for the far-right party. Some said Hodge was brave for making the point and facing up to the seriousness of the BNP’s rise, but others thought she had made a self-fulfilling prophesy. The argument was her comments gave the party credibility, and led to it seizing 11 of the 13 wards it contested in Barking. After that there was talk of deselection, and Labour councillor Val Rush still wants to see her reprimanded for her comments; she says: “It’s a matter the party is looking into.”
Hodge looks sulky when asked about the BNP incident, but eventually says: “There’s been a huge change in that community and people are struggling to cope.”
Race relations and immigration are clearly issues that are close to her heart. She says the recent surge in immigrants from the EU accession states, such as Poland and Latvia, has been vital for the construction industry: “Without them we wouldn’t be filling the huge growth in contracting opportunities in construction. We should a) welcome them, b) make sure they are properly trained, and c) train our own workers.”
She also argues that construction “should be a women’s industry”, and argues that this will be driven by the adoption of modern construction methods, which tend to place more emphasis on organisation and less on physical strength.
Exploring new sources of labour is becoming increasingly vital, particularly in the South-east region, and particularly in the lead-in to the 2012 Olympics. It is here that Hodge has made probably her most vital contribution to construction. She made sure that Tessa Jowell, the minister in charge of the Games, and “a great mate”, agreed to impose series of best practice commitments on contractors bidding for work. Subcontractors will be pleased to hear that these include 30-day payment periods to ensure that all firms in the supply chain enjoy decent cash flow. According to a source who helped to draw them up, Hodge virtually put them under Jowell’s nose.
This was a grand achievement, but one that Hodge rather plays down. She prefers to praise Peter Rogers, the chairman of the 2012 Task Group, for doing a “really good job”.
So, one last namecheck, and one last piece of evidence that construction is safe in Hodge’s hands. But what is not so certain is how much longer it will be there …
Born 8 September 1944
She has four children (three daughters, one son) and a grandchild. Her husband is Sir Henry Egar Garfield Hodge, a judge of the High Court of Justice.
She was first elected to Islington council in 1973, then became leader between 1982 and 1992. She was chair of Circle 33 Housing Trust from 1993 to 1996 and was elected MP for Barking in 1994.
Four years later she entered the government as undersecretary of state for employment and equal opportunities, and in 2001 attained ministerial rank when she took over lifelong learning, further and higher education at the Department for Education and Skills. In 2003 she was minister of state for children, young people and families, and in 2005 became minister for employment and welfare reform in the Department for Work and Pensions.
If Hodge only did one thing in her time in government, what should it be? Email us your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org