By the time you read these words on Friday, Nick Clegg may have fumbled the second leadership debate and the public’s sudden passion for the Lib Dems could have evaporated
But for the moment, it’s looking like they could be exerting more influence on British politics than at any time since the days of Lloyd George.
Like everyone else, we’ve been analysing their policies a little more closely than before. We also published an open letter from Nick Clegg last week, responding to our Charter 284 campaign and setting out how his party would put industry rather than finance at the centre of its business policy. This week it’s Gordon Brown’s turn: his rhetoric is less rousing, perhaps, but he also promises to keep the industry in work. It’s fantastic that the leaders of these parties are aware of the worth of construction – although the candidates we met in Dronfield were less inspiring. There are also some welcome similarities in terms of their commitments to our Charter 284 aims. For example, unlike the Conservatives, who have yet to respond to our campaign, both are committed to the school building programme, Crossrail and a National Infrastructure Bank (which the Lib Dems would use to expand the railways). Of all the parties, the Lib Dems are the most committed to green policies. They are pledging to give homeowners £400 for eco home improvements, and have big plans for wind energy.
Some policies may be less palatable: road building would be cut, there would be no new nuclear power stations, and planning policies have the anti-development thrust of the Tories but without the sweeteners. Perhaps the biggest impact would come from their pledge to harmonise VAT on refurbishment and new build. This step is logical, and some sectors of the industry have been lobbying for it for some time, but it would be a serious blow to housebuilders right now. In fact, given all the other costs involved in building homes, adding VAT could kill a recovery.
If the Lib Dems were in government, or held the balance in a hung parliament, life would certainly change. We don’t know exactly what the party’s policies would mean for construction’s workload – but that’s common to all the contenders. The party’s commitment to sustainability is certainly admirable and will in itself win votes from many of our readers – although it is harder to deliver than it is to campaign about. But can we really keep the lights on without nuclear power? Or reduce council waiting lists with a tax on home building? It would be enlightening if Clegg managed to discuss those issues in the final debate.
The party’s commitment to sustainability is admirable, But can we really keep the lights on without nuclear power?
One area where you can’t fault Britain’s productivity is our output of rubbish: we produce 300 million tonnes of it a year. Historically, most has been buried in landfill, but the European commission is making it ever harder to do that – which is forcing councils to come up with ever more ingenious ways of recycling it, or converting it into energy. This, in turn, has created a huge market for the construction industry: public sector demand may be as high as £11bn over the next 10 years. Much of this money is to be spent on building plants that can extract energy from rubbish. Because the raw material is in plentiful supply, and has to go somewhere, it is a relatively safe market. But there are caveats. It requires specialist knowledge, and it comes with significant risks, the biggest being the enthusiasm shown by residents for building large incineration plants next to someone else’s home (and that is likely to get worse under the Tories’ localist agenda). Finally, these risks mean PFI deals cost more to put together and fund; but even with all of the above taken into account, the waste market could be a gold mine for intrepid, well organised firms.
Denise Chevin, editor