Boris Johnson made a lot of promises. I worry that the next prime minister will abandon those pledges in favour of regressive measures to ease the cost-of-living crisis, writes Gleeds chairman Richard Steer
As the leadership race to find the country’s next prime minister grinds inexorably onwards and the Tory party continues its process of public self-evisceration, I and the rest of the nation can do little more than wait and see what happens. This speculation over our future leader – and the new government they will deliver – does little to help our sector which, over the past three years, has bounced from uncertainty over Brexit, to worry over covid-19 and concern regarding Ukraine.
Under Boris Johnson’s regime we were promised increased infrastructure spending, long-term investment in healthcare with the delivery of 40 new hospitals, a raft of mini nuclear power stations and the “levelling up” of our regions. We were told time and time again that this Conservative government was committed to “building back better”.
The concern now is that his replacement may choose to concentrate on implementing short-term fiscal measures in a bid to curry favour and ease the cost-of-living crisis, all of which could be underwritten by a reduction in proposed infrastructure spending which has more of a long-term impact.
It was noticeable that the raft of resignations which precipitated the prime minister’s decision to stand down included those of housing minister Stuart Andrew, construction minister Lee Rowley and levelling up minister Neil O’Brien. It seems likely, then, that any key decisions on major programmes will be delayed, at least until September and potentially for much longer.
The need to address catastrophic rates of climate change has taken a back seat for those who have been eyeing the top spot
What has already become clear, however, is that the need to address catastrophic rates of climate change has taken a back seat for those who have been eyeing the top spot, with the voting records of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak showing a worrying lack of support for the UK’s net zero targets. If we thought that Johnson’s commitment to delivering on his green agenda was waning in the wake of inflationary pressure and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, his potential successors show even less promise.
Sunak, for example, has consistently voted against measures to prevent climate change, and the former chancellor’s budgets made little reference to green issues. He also actively pushed to fast-track the approval of six oil and gas fields earlier this year, while Truss cut subsidies for solar farms, which she branded “a blight on the landscape”, and said during hustings that she was committing to achieving net zero in a “more market-friendly way”. Whatever that means.
Only Penny Mordaunt acknowledged the potential that pursuing net zero could represent – creating up to three million jobs by 2030, alongside apprenticeships and training opportunities. Perhaps it says much that she was jettisoned as our potential next PM.
Our sector may have been somewhat slow on the uptake, but more recently we seem to have grasped the nettle when it comes to sustainability and are making great strides in terms of considering whole-life carbon and the ways in which we can reduce emissions at every stage of a building’s cycle. The National Infrastructure Commission’s design principles place climate top of the heap, with projects now being created which not only mean schemes are built and operated in a way that cuts emissions, but also enables the people using that space to reduce their own climate impacts, too.
I find little to reassure me that the new leader will be prioritising making the UK’s built environment ‘better’ once they have their feet under the Cabinet table at Number 10
Even the notoriously problematic concrete market has seen its way green, with big business pledging to use 30% low emission concrete by 2025 and 50% by 2030. It would be disastrous for this period of political upheaval to lead to environmental ambitions being parked as short-term political expedience is once again pitted against climate.
We have already seen renewable energy projects being put on the backburner, alongside a regressive turn back towards fossil fuels touted as a solution to our energy security woes.
It would appear that my concerns are shared. The Conservative Environment Network and a host of the UK’s top business groups – including the UK Corporate Leaders Group, BITC, and Renewable UK – recently signed letters urging candidates to honour the green manifesto commitments they were elected on and stressing the importance of using renewable power to shore up energy security.
I find little to reassure me that the new leader will be prioritising making the UK’s built environment “better” once they have their feet under the Cabinet table at Number 10. Indeed, at this point, I am left wondering if we will see much “building back” at all.
Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide