Lee Rowley is the government’s sixth construction minister within the past three years. It’s no surprise that some in the industry are grumbling, warns James Wates
As we near the year’s end, it is a natural time to look back and consider some of the changes we have seen. One such pattern of change, as in past years, has been the ever-evolving position of construction minister.
During 2021, three different ministers at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) have been given responsibility for overseeing the construction industry. We have had six different construction ministers in the past three years, and twenty since 2001.
The high rate of churn has become a complaint among some in our industry. The concern being that as soon as (or even before) a minister gets on top of the construction brief and really gets to know the way that it works, he or she is moved on.
It is a valid concern. We are not like other sectors. There are about a million construction businesses in the UK – many of them micro-businesses – and numerous trade associations and professional institutions representing them. The CLC fills an important role in representing to government the many diverse sector interests, but the construction minister must still consider many other perspectives – including numerous voices within the government – to get a full picture. Though we in the sector are better than we used to be at speaking with a single voice, there can still be a cacophony at times.
It takes time to get to know the industry well, to build the relationships and depth of understanding that such an important sector deserves
It therefore takes time to get to know the industry well, to build the relationships and the depth of understanding that such an important sector deserves. Hence the disquiet about the seemingly high rate of turnover in the ministerial role.
Keep in mind also that the “construction minister” also needs to keep an eye on many other sectors. The current job holder Lee Rowley’s portfolio also includes advanced manufacturing, professional and business services, aerospace, maritime, and chemicals, among others. It is a lot to keep track of.
That said, I have not found too many other governments giving construction a dedicated seat at the Cabinet table. Germany has a Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community, responsible for public building law, the construction sector, the construction industry and federal buildings. Which does seem to concentrate responsibilities, but that minister has other issues to worry about as well.
The US government has just committed more than a trillion dollars to infrastructure upgrades around the country, split among various government departments. The White House will undoubtedly maintain political oversight, but construction and infrastructure does not appear to have a dedicated voice in the federal government, and of course the American political system devolves significant power to the states.
Governments everywhere should recognise that construction is an economic multiplier. Here in the UK, the CBI Fine Margins report from 2019 showed that every pound invested in construction generates £2.92 in economic value.
That ought to carry some political weight. The UK government, with a political strategy clearly tied to building back better, really does need construction. It is not sufficient simply to load the pipeline with big-money projects. The sector needs a more detailed and longer-term understanding of that pipeline and to know that we will have someone high up in government fighting our corner, with no competing interests.
To get the most out of the sector, the government needs both long-term commitment and political clout. They could achieve that through the appointment of a minister solely focused on construction.
That individual would be a real spider in the web. Numerous departments serve as clients to the construction industry – including transport, education, justice, defence, environment and the Home Office. The construction procurement pipeline (even as simplified in Build UK’s helpful executive summary) reflects that the money is spread widely; significant investments are being made by numerous offices up and down Whitehall.
In addition, other departments are both clients and cross-departmental policy makers, such as BEIS and the department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office play critical roles, complemented by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority.
We are looking at a potentially catastrophic skills gap, with huge numbers of skilled workers retiring or returning to native lands in Europe. So regular visits to the Department for Education and Department for Work and Pensions are a must. It seems the construction minister would need a good pair of walking shoes …
My wish is for the government to stop and think about whether they are really doing everything they can to drive good practice in their quest to build back better
Another requirement of the job would be to understand how to drive good practice through to local government as well. The Construction Playbook is a great achievement, and if fully implemented will make a difference in aligning the sector behind good practice. But it needs a champion in government (again, backed by political capital) to drive implementation through all the public sector clients, in central and local governments. So the minister will need to get out of London.
Looking forward to 2022, my wish is for the government to stop and think about whether they are really doing everything they can to drive good practice in their quest to build back better. Some bold and forward-looking thinking might lead to the appointment of a minister solely devoted to construction.
And, while they are being bold and forward-looking, they can give that minister a long-term contract.
Sir James Wates CBE is chairman of Wates Group