The first three months of Theresa May’s tenure has seen her strong early promise soured
This week marks three months since Theresa May stepped up to become prime minister, triumphing in a shock Tory leadership race that had been unimaginable just weeks before. How May handles the outcome of the Brexit vote that sparked her appointment will, inevitably, be the most watched issue of her premiership; but so far, despite signals of a “hard Brexit” causing concern in business circles, May’s influence on the complex issue of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is only just beginning.
Although Brexit ultimately stands to be the issue of May’s tenure which will have the greatest effect on construction, her first 100 days in charge have been marked by an unexpectedly strong focus on matters that have put the sector centre stage. So, with a charge on housebuilding and a swift but ultimately positive review of Hinkley, set against troubling signs for the National Infrastructure Commission and foreign workers, how should the industry rate May’s impact so far?
The focus on housebuilding is undoubtedly the biggest win for the sector from the new prime minister’s actions to date. As the Home Builders Federation’s John Slaughter put it this week, the Conservative Party conference pitched the UK’s housing problems as “a national moral challenge”. It’s a more than fitting stance – but one that the previous government, even with (or, more likely, because of) its obsession with increasing home ownership, somehow failed to take convincingly.
The housing policies set out so far have received a warm welcome from the sector. The £3bn Home Building Fund, under which small builders will be able to access loans for development finance, should help companies that have struggled to borrow the cash they need due to their size. But the government’s second major housing initiative – the £2bn “Accelerated Construction” project – offers even more promise.
The scheme will entail a net increase in public borrowing to fund a programme to reduce the development risks on surplus public land. This, it is hoped, will encourage SMEs and offsite manufacturers in particular to build them out. In a stroke, the government has moved away from six years of rigidly prioritising a reduction of the national deficit above funding public projects, even though these projects could have been built at relatively low cost. With the new administration’s first Autumn Statement now just six weeks away, other departments which can get schemes off the ground quickly – education being one obvious example – will be reading the runes with cautious encouragement.
However, when it comes to the UK’s mega projects – infrastructure schemes slated for the next decade and beyond – the jury on May’s early impact is still out. Her approval of Hinkley, albeit after a brief review, was a good sign – many a politician would have kicked the still-contentious scheme much further into the grass amid the distraction of the post-referendum fallout.
But the thankfully brief hiatus, in which a £18bn project was put on hold overnight, gave a worrying glimpse of the impact that any sudden change in direction over such huge schemes would have on the sector. As such, the government’s refusal to commit to giving the body in charge of delivering the UK’s infrastructure priorities, the National Infrastructure Commission, statutory independence is a potential powder keg. No wonder that industry and business heavyweights – including KPMG’s Richard Threlfall and Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI – have this week signed an open letter asking the chancellor to change his mind.
The other deeply concerning move made so far by May’s administration was the proposal, outlined by home secretary Amber Rudd last week, suggesting companies would have to publish data on the foreign workers they employ. The proposal provoked widespread condemnation: one former government adviser called it akin to tattooing “numbers on their forearms”.
Although the government hastily rowed back from the move, the debacle showed that support for “naming and shaming” companies with an international workforce exists within the highest levels of government. For construction, an industry which relies on a transient workforce, penalising firms on the basis of the number of foreign workers they employ would threaten a huge source of labour in both trades and professions alike. And remember, the government is talking about legitimate, foreign employees; this action would have no impact on the grey labour markets that are often blamed for undercutting minimum waged workforces.
So far, then, May’s strong early promise has been soured by the potential for damage in the direction the government appears to be heading on infrastructure and foreign labour. But May’s legacy is far from written; and as Hinkley showed, even on contentious issues, the prime minister is open to turning.
Sarah Richardson, editor