Labour and the Conservatives are fine-tuning their manifestos ahead of the next general election. There is an opportunity here for them to put the built environment front and centre, writes Gleeds chairman Richard Steer
Summer is a busy time for the political parties. With parliament in recess and a general election coming next year, the strategists, working parties, focus groups and policy people are gathered in hotels inking their manifestos.
However, they are all struggling against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, the post-covid hangover, plus a ghastly economy which is both flat and uninspiring. To quote Monty Python, our fiscal position is the equivalent of a dead parrot: if the economy wasn’t nailed to its perch, it would be pushing up the daisies.
But this should not stop us all from lobbying for the incoming government to place those working in the built environment at the centre of its industrial strategy, rather than on the periphery. I am fed up with reminding ministers, MPs and think-tanks that we are around 8% of GDP at our height. Where is our voice at the table lobbying Rishi and Keir?
No one in power – or seeking power – appears to want to listen. We have seen a revolving door of 15 housing ministers since 2010. In this period only three – Grant Shapps, Brandon Lewis and the ill-fated but well-named Christopher Pincher – have lasted more than two years in the post.
During Theresa May’s three years as prime minister, there were no fewer than four housing ministers. She was as indecisive over this as everything else, it would seem. Boris Johnson’s reign at Number 10 was just as tumultuous, with three ministers appointed to the role.
Since housing was added to the remit of the renamed Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in January 2018 – meaning, at last, that the person responsible for housing policy was a member of the cabinet – there have already been four secretaries of state: Sajid Javid, James Brokenshire and Robert Jenrick, with Michael Gove taking over in September 2021. Gove is probably the most interventionist and least popular, and he seems to be permanently at odds with the sector rather than being prepared to listen.
With a war in Europe, the UK’s reputation for prudence and shrewdness in decline post Johnson/Truss/Brexit and UK inflation rates one of the worst in the G7, faith in our economic outlook is harder to find than a Nigel Farage bank account
I support the politics of reducing costs, improving productivity and increasing output but, in the past 20 years, we have had the Latham report, the Egan report and finally, during Paul Morrell’s tenure as government construction tsar, more recommendations still. And all this before Mark Farmer came forward with his “adapt or die” advice.
But, with a war in Europe, the UK’s reputation for prudence and shrewdness in decline post Johnson/Truss/Brexit and UK inflation rates one of the worst in the G7, faith in our economic outlook is harder to find than a Nigel Farage bank account.
I would argue that the last business secretary who seemed to understand our sector was Vince Cable – and that was back in 2015, pre-Brexit and when AI was something that only the likes of blockbuster director James Cameron was taking seriously, albeit in fantasy films. Perhaps I am cynical but Johnson donning a high viz jacket, bashing through a polystyrene wall in a JCB and proclaiming that he was going to “build back better” is not an industrial strategy, it is a sound bite.
Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer seem equally unengaged with a sector that has more than 2.7m workers – that’s a lot of income and corporation tax, national insurance and VAT generated by an industry which seems to evade their radar. Every £1 spent in construction generates just under £3 for the wider economy. How many industrial sectors can claim that metric?
So, I am making a plea to the main parties to make manifesto pledges that support our sector for a change, rather than harp on about its perceived shortcomings as Gove may be doing. Here are just a few suggestions:
- How about cutting VAT on home improvements and building refurbishments provided they meet certain green criteria? This would create jobs, reduce carbon and help to future proof housing stock, making them cheaper to run.
- How about investing to improve transport infrastructure, digital connectivity and productivity? Every 1% increase in productivity generates a 1.5% increase in real wage growth. This would be particularly beneficial in the North and the Midlands. Investment does not stop with HS2…
- How about ensuring that firms are unable to dump debts, liquidate to avoid their creditors and then restructure quite legally to start trading within days?
- How about revisiting some of the U-turns made on the green deal, toning down the rhetoric and ramping up the commitment to the sustainable agenda by fast-tracking planning for renewable energy projects and mini nuclear?
As we enter the phoney war period before the next election, there is an opportunity here for the parties to put the creation of the built environment front and centre in their manifestos
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, how about guaranteeing that any future housing or construction minister has some actual experience in the sector before being appointed?
For years, commentators have complained that politicians have not taken this industry seriously. As we enter the phoney war period before the next election, there is an opportunity here for the parties to put the built environment front and centre in their manifestos.
Surely it is time that construction was recognised as being fundamental to any future industrial strategy and worthy of being placed centre stage?
Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide