As the industry impatiently awaits clarity on Truss’s plans, we still don’t even know the name of the new construction minister

The news of Queen Elizabeth’s death is being felt across the UK as it adapts to the official period of mourning and the national media relay every detail of the preparations for the royal funeral.

Chloe McCulloch

Our own coverage reflects tributes to the monarch paid by the construction and design world, while we have cast an eye on the architecture of the second Elizabethan age and ask if Charles III’s views of the built environment were ahead of their time.  

Not only are we adjusting to a new head of state, our government is now under new management with Liz Truss – the fourth prime minister in six years – and a brand-new set of Cabinet ministers.

Truss has taken the hot seat at a moment of real crisis for this country, in her first week having to announce she would cap average household bills at £2,500 – a government bailout over two years that could be worth as much as £150bn.

The scale of the intervention came as a relief to many, but businesses have been left in limbo with no understanding of the workings of an “equivalent” cap on prices – and that is just for six months, to be reviewed after three months when measures may be more targeted. There has been no indication of further and much needed measures such as business rates and VAT relief or loans to see otherwise viable firms through a bleak winter. The lack of detail means many bosses are no wiser now than they were before Truss became prime minister.

Let’s not forget that for nearly two months Boris Johnson presided over a caretaker administration that could make no new policy or spending decisions. During this time debates in the Conservative leadership contest overtly courted the party membership, side-stepping the concerns of the rest of us.

Capping bills is an emergency measure that does not make our country any more self-sufficient or sustainable

And all the while the health of the economy was rapidly deteriorating. The latest ONS figures for construction show output dropped in July for a second consecutive month, dragging down the whole of the economy to a dismal 0.2% growth.

Construction had proved one of the more resilient sectors in the post-pandemic recovery. No more. An Arcadis report this week says there is clear evidence the market has now peaked. No one knows when exactly recession will hit but the slowdown is already happening; the big questions are how long it will last and how painful it will be, especially for SMEs.

Was any of this avoidable? Perhaps not, given that the energy crisis is largely down to Putin’s decision to cut off Europe’s gas supply. And yet it is hard to shake off the feeling that precious time was lost by our own politicians over the summer and now into September. How can firms crack on when they are working in the dark?

>>Also read: SMEs ‘on tenterhooks’ awaiting details of PM’s energy support package

>>Also read: Elizabeth II enhanced our country’s image abroad. What will we do without her?

Industry leaders are also worried by the signals Truss is sending about net zero. The news that climate sceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg had landed the job of secretary of state for business and energy looked – to the green lobby at least – like a two‑fingered gesture. That may prove an over-simplistic interpretation: Graham Stuart, one of the leading voices urging Theresa May to enshrine the net zero target into law, is now climate minister and will attend Cabinet, presumably there to put the case for climate action while Rees-Mogg focuses on the other parts of his brief.

But this is all just speculation because for now the PM, her ministers and her civil servants are tight-lipped on policy and even the final appointments to her team. At the time of going to press, we had no luck with our requests to find out who was in line to take on the construction brief as one of the more junior ministerial responsibilities. As a brief it has history for being a politician’s revolving door, but right now even knowing who will be the next name on the list is so low down the priority list it hardly matters.

Politics may be on hold but behind the scenes ministers and civil servants are busy putting flesh on the bones of Truss’s plan to grow the economy – and possibly relieved to have more time to do so. There is an expectation that once parliament resumes business next week chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng will look to enact the tax cuts promised.

So events are set to speed up and construction industry leaders need to be ready to reinforce the case for the sector’s vital role in boosting the economy. As James Wates points out, politicians may need reminding that construction acts as an economic multiplier, paying back threefold the money invested in it.

They will also need to argue hard that investing in net zero – a national retrofit programme and renewable sources of energy rather than oil and gas extraction – addresses both the energy and the climate crisis head on. Capping bills is an emergency measure that does not make our country any more self-sufficient or sustainable and it does not stop us wasting energy as we heat leaky buildings.

This argument is so self-evident it’s a wonder it has to be made at all. But it does, repeatedly and loudly by you, the experts, employers, leaders and lobby groups who can see that investing in green construction makes sense for business and the planet. Everyone needs to bang the drum loudly if we are to step into the Carolean age with a sense of hope.

Chloë McCulloch is the editor of Building

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