Policy makers are keen to be seen with the industry - but here’s how they could really make a difference

Sarah Richardson, editor of Building

It may be a different set of celebrity photographs making the headlines in the national press at the moment, but there’s no denying that there has been a growing number of images published featuring cabinet ministers on construction sites over recent weeks. Hard hats, trainees, major projects: it seems there are few opportunities politicians will pass up to associate themselves with the sector at a time when public attention is turning to the party conference season, and all of the main parties want to emphasise how they are harnessing the industry to boost the wider economy.

But the most revealing thing about these images is the gap between the confident posturing and the limited effect the policies of those pictured are having on the industry. Another set of troubling figures released last week by the Office of National Statistics showed a drop in output of 10% over the three months to July compared to the previous year, with the volume of new infrastructure work - supposedly a focal point for the government - down almost 24%.

So with the first party conference kicking off with the Liberal Democrats in Brighton tomorrow, here are a few suggestions on what policy makers could focus on that would really make a difference for the industry:

  • Green Deal: Confirmation this week that the scheme will not begin until January may not come as a shock, but it comes as a blow to hopes of an immediate boost. The government should now increase repairs and maintenance programmes in social housing to plug the gap in work, at the same time as trying to advance a funding solution to the Green Deal that will ensure the scheme does not slip further.
  • Infrastructure: There have been myriad high-level ideas to attract financing for projects. What’s missing, however, is the detail on how this funding can be accessed. In particular, a workable system needs to be put in place quickly for projects to access the £40bn UK guarantees programme.
  • Housing: Even after reforms announced at the start of the month, there’s still a lot more that could be done. Tax relief for investment in private rented properties would be one quick way to boost development.
  • School building: OK, the £2.4bn Priority Schools Building Programme is never going to have the impact of its £55bn predecessor. But the longer it is delayed by the Treasury’s PFI review, the more of an obvious opportunity for a regional boost to construction work is being missed. It would be a relief to see the coalition launch the first directly funded schools to market - and, if the PFI review continues to be a barrier, even to extend this area of the programme, with funding justified by savings officials believe can be made through standardisation.

The impact that these moves could have is explored here, along with the chances of them coming to fruition. Over the next three weeks, politicians have the chance to put bluster aside and outline their programmes for boosting construction. The consequences of not making this time count will be far greater than a wasted chance for publicity.

Sarah Richardson, editor