Building’s Agenda 15 manifesto, launched this month, was drawn up after a year of consultation with its readers on what construction needs from the next government. Lib Dem Andrew Stunell is the first MP to respond to our policy blueprint

Andrew Stunell

If you think the building industry is cyclical, you should try politics. Five years from start to finish of a parliament - in an “industry” where most political projects take at least two years to design and start on site, another two years to build and test, with the client handover happening just a bit too soon to know whether it’s an award-winner or a lemon. By which time the parties are starting all over again to draw up their manifestos for the next cycle.

That in turn triggers every organisation under the sun to send their own “manifesto” to MPs. Their aim, of course, is to see the policies they advocate taken up and delivered during the next parliament and beyond. The inference is that if the MP publicly agrees with them, then support will be forthcoming for him or her and their party.  If not, woe betide!

This year I can afford to read them a little more dispassionately, as I’m standing down and so not expected to respond with suitably bland words that, as much as possible, avoid alienating the multiple authors and their unnumbered cohorts.

Most of the 20 or so manifestos from special interest groups that have reached me so far are a mixture of sensible and desirable things (often with money no object), and quick visits to fairyland. Contradictions abound, not just between them but within them.

Last week I got Building’s very own Agenda 15, an eight-point plan for the construction industry to add to that pile. So how does it rate?

First, like all the best manifestos, it starts in the real world. It singles out the success of the government in stabilising the country’s finances, and for its mapping of the “construction pipeline”. When I joined the ministerial team building that pipeline, I was astonished to find that putting all known public sector infrastructure investment plans onto one flow chart was a Whitehall first. Agenda 15 calls for more of the same fiscal stability and construction predictability. That’s certainly what the Liberal Democrats plan to deliver - paying down the rest of the deficit by 2017, then letting public spending trend upwards with subsequent growth in the economy, and with major public projects timetabled and financed to reduce construction boom and bust.

When decisions are taken locally, it does mean things sometimes look a bit untidy seen from Whitehall or the desk of the impatient manifesto writer

Then Agenda 15 calls for major reinvestment in skills for the industry. That’s spot on. We’ve now got a strong focus on skill development nationally, with two million apprentices recruited in four years, but there is shed loads more to do.  And I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues will all sign up to another key Agenda 15 demand - for the UK to remain in the EU, too.

To reduce risk and uncertainty Agenda 15 wants all major construction projects planned by an “independent infrastructure body”, with a cabinet minister responsible for delivery.  Between them they would be responsible for setting and implementing “realistic national housebuilding targets”, and launching a retro-fit programme for one million homes a year, as well as joined-up programmes for schools and the NHS (and presumably transport and tertiary education projects, too).

This certainly cannot be faulted for ambition, but a couple of things need fixing. There is a salutary tale to be told about the last completely independent body set up by Parliament. Called the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, it promptly created mayhem by recommending that MPs should have a big pay rise. Now everyone wants MPs to stop them. We can’t. It’s the law that we cannot interfere with their decision. 

In my view, Building has got its processes back to front here. For the next parliament (as with this) what is essential is strong political ownership of the programme of major projects, and with the independent infrastructure body responsible for their delivery, as was done successfully with the Olympics, and is in hand for HS2.  The top level industry experts needed to staff the independent infrastructure body will be brilliant at delivery, but with no idea about choice-making in a democracy, and no legitimacy to do so. Only elected ministers can decide between competing investments in hospitals and homes. And likely to have no relevant professional background, ministers should be the last people to be left in charge of project delivery.

However, I’ve got a more fundamental point to make. Agenda 15 goes for the quick fix of central control and direction of the construction industry’s output. The independent infrastructure body will fix how many homes are built (private and public), and funding is to be “flexed” to ensure they are delivered. Goodness knows what they will do if the public won’t retro-fit their homes fast enough!  But Agenda 15 also says that it wants government to deliver greater regional and local devolution. More devolution means more decisions on housing, jobs, transport, health and education taken away from Whitehall and made elsewhere by other people. As inventors of “localism”, Liberal Democrats are clear that decisions about local services are best taken by people who know and represent that locality. And that does mean things sometimes look a bit untidy seen from Whitehall or the desk of the impatient manifesto writer.

Agenda 15 is full of good practical stuff about the construction industry that any new government would be well advised to study carefully. But like every manifesto it still needs a bit of work done on the implementation. And there’s still a clear choice to be made between strong central control and devolved local decisions.

Andrew Stunell is Liberal Democrat MP for Hazel Grove and a former minister with responsibility for Building Regulations