Building declares its intentions

You have to cast your mind back to 1992 to remember the last time we went into an election with the economy in such a mess. And you only have to read the latest news from Greece to realise how much of a mess: the UK’s budget deficit is 12% of GDP and Greece’s is 13.6%. So whoever wins next week’s election is going to resemble a doctor in a trauma centre wondering which limb to lop off first.

The question that many are asking, including our floating voters (page 28) and much of the British media, is: how are we supposed to choose a government to tackle the deficit when none of the parties will tell us how they propose to do it? As Robert Chote, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, remarked this week: “All three are particularly vague on their plans for public spending.”

Well, even if we don’t know the specifics, we do know that all the parties have left something like £30bn unaccounted for after allowing for “efficiency savings”. And we know that, even without taking that much demand out of the economy, there is likely to be a 3% fall in construction output this year, on top of the 12% fall in 2009 – despite the return to growth in the economy generally. Indeed, it won’t be until 2014 that we get back to 2002. So, no surprise that John McDonough told last week’s Building Awards that we were in for “three to five tough years”.

We can also examine what the parties don’t say. Over the past three weeks the leaders of the three largest ones have sent us an open letter setting out their stalls for construction. This week we have David Cameron (page 29). He begins by saying how pleased he is to respond to Building’s Charter 284 campaign but then does little to address its points beyond acknowledging the importance of the industry to the national economy and the need for better regulation. There’s no pledge to keep Labour’s school building programmes, or to limit cuts to transport infrastructure. By contrast, Gordon Brown’s letter said Building Schools for the Future “would continue” and Nick Clegg promised to “insulate” schools from the cuts (although he would scrap new-build nuclear power). Given the size of the deficit you could argue that Cameron is sensibly refusing to write any bouncing cheques. He’s clearly doing enough to win over many of Building’s readers: our web survey found that 35% are intending to vote for him, compared with 28% for the Lib Dems and 27% for Labour. Last time, only 28% planned to vote Tory.

Of course, there are many reasons for choosing a party to vote for, not least a desire not to spend another five years watching the same people making a hash of running the country (and themselves), and how much cash is likely to be extracted from one’s own wallet. If we focus on the economy, the choice is difficult. Do you think the Tories’ plan for quick, deep cuts will be best for business because they will reduce our £180bn debt, and hence our interest payments, faster? Or would it tip us back into recession? And would the other two parties’ slightly softer approach buy us more time to get the private sector on its feet before the axe bites?

We think the latter. Our Charter 284 campaign makes a case for continuing investment and we have set out our priorities within the context of the most difficult economic climate in living memory. These are: complete the renewal of the school estate; don’t let spending on transport infrastructure fall more than 10% below current levels; reduce the regulatory burden on housing and give householders incentives to green their homes; prioritise the development of renewable and nuclear energy. If you measure the manifestos and leaders’ letters against those demands, there is a clear winner. It may be difficult to stomach, but if you really want to vote with your head and not your heart, then it has to be Brown.