When Whitehall split responsibility for construction between departments, it was obvious things would get messy – but then the industry has always been misunderstood

As the industry winds itself down for one of the lazier months of the year – barring those pitiful souls finishing off the Scottish parliament – it’s an opportune time to consider the latest goings-on at Whitehall. The past month has seen a flurry of activity in the run-up to the summer recess, mostly off the back of Gordon Brown’s spending review. But now it’s time to ask the politicians that familiar question: is there any chance of you stepping out of your policy document-filled rooms and bloody well doing it?

This is not the exact phrasing I have used when face to face with a politician, but you get my gist. If Tony Blair’s pits are sweating about anything at present – apart from the matter of a supposed arsenal of weapons and a small Middle Eastern state – it must surely be about delivery. Blair knows that failure to deliver on his public spending commitments would be his undoing, rather than any ambitions his chancellor, or for that matter the Tory leader, may have.

I remember just three years ago, after Labour’s election victory, this fear of failure led to a departmental shake-up for construction, transport and housing. No longer was the spread of industry interests in Whitehall to be contained in one department – the Department for Environment Transport and the Regions. There was a messy divorce, and in came the Department for Transport, John Prescott’s very own Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I still forget where each policy element fits in. Now you’ll find construction in the DTI, but you have to search hard.

Like most divorces, it left some ill feeling. Yes, the DETR was unwieldy, but wasn’t the whole point to join up thinking? Granted, the superdepartment had received plenty of flak in Labour’s first term for achieving next to nothing – anyone know what happened to the seven bright new Millennium Communities and the

10-year transport plan? – but surely it could have been given a bit more time. Perhaps the desperate need to sort out the Railtrack crisis was in the front of Labour’s mind when creating the dedicated transport brief.

The fear among contractors was that the departmental carve-up would create fragmentation and a lack of common drive and purpose. So what has happened since? Er, fragmentation, and a lack of common drive and purpose. Rail has gone through its second or third shake-up, and we now the transport and ODPM offices have drawn up separate plans for the transport white paper and the communities plan. Both, of course, include the word “sustainable”. What current policy doesn’t?

But a fundamental tension has emerged between the two: one department is trying to cater for our increasing travel needs, driven by the growing economy; the other trying to stop us travelling. One seems to have embraced realism; the other has high ambitions but poor delivery.

The DETR got plenty of flak for achieving next to nothing, but it could have been given more time

Prescott started his tenure at the DETR on the naive premise that if you get the trains running properly, we won’t want to use roads. The cannier transport minister Alistair Darling has realised this is folly – why force drivers out of their cars when you can make them pay more for the privilege through road tolls? Public transport gets his backing, but a much more cautious one. You can’t just chuck money at the rail service.

But what about Prescott’s other big idea? It’s still in place and it’s called the communities plan. It attempts to curtail travel by providing services – the paper shop down the road, a nearby school and so on – within walking distance. Proof that this will work is scant, the Thames Gateway will be the real testing ground.

Crossrail, which was purported to get government backing last month but really got nothing more than an amber light, sits uneasily between the two departments, a victim of the demise of the DETR in 2001. It is overseen by the Department of Transport, but how much energy and drive will cautious Darling and Co have to push ahead with it? Prescott’s plans for the Thames Gateway surely rest on the existence of Crossrail, which is short of cash and must still be viewed by the Treasury as too big a punt, given the huge amount of expenditure ploughed into the CTRL, the West Coast Main Line and the Jubilee Line.

Crossrail is a bit like the awkward, skinny looking kid at school who never gets picked for the football team. What is called for here is some of that good old joined-up thinking. The government needs to consider whether the 2001 split up was really that wise, or just a short-term fix. Time to be a bit more radical, Tony.

Phil Clark is Building’s deputy editor