We live in confusing times. On one hand, we’ve had a week of posturing by the Tories and Labour as each tries to outdo the other on the prickliness of the hair shirts they’ll be forcing Whitehall in particular, and the public sector in general, to wear
On the other, there are glimmers of hope: house prices have now risen for three months running, car sales are up 11% on last year and Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s’ profits are still growing.
So where are we?This week we published a guide for the industry in the form of our top 250 consultants’ survey. Unfortunately this survey makes depressing reading. Although last year the industry was skidding on black ice, consultants felt protected by Dubai’s manic building boom, Abu Dhabi’s petrodollars and healthy public spending. Indeed, 70% of them expected to recruit staff in the year ahead.
As we all know, things changed. The Middle East’s boom bombed and the real state of the public finances gradually became clear as the college programme crashed and burned and spending plans for health and education looked less certain. New orders dropped 25% in the year to June 2009 and consultants cut their staff by 7% or 20,000 people.
No doubt things will change again this year: Ray O’Rourke’s comment that the “construction sector lags the global economic cycle, and the industry’s most challenging period is still ahead” doesn’t inspire optimism. But, despite the injuries they’ve suffered, consultants are surprisingly optimistic. Our survey shows that 61% of them expect things to stabilise in the next 12 months, and 66% expect to leave staff numbers unchanged.
Alas, a glance at the latest forecasts tends to support O’Rourke. Our economic analysis suggests that things are going to continue going downwards.
The concern for companies must be that even those gloomy assessments assume that big public spending programmes will not be axed or postponed. And the suspicion must be that George Osborne’s announcements at this week’s Tory conference are really a softening-up exercise. His proposed cuts are aimed at relatively easy targets. Delaying the start of the state pension was probably inevitable, and not many private sector workers are going to shed tears over a public sector pay freeze.
Nor will most voters care about the squeeze on tax credits for the middle classes. The trouble is, these cuts aren’t going to make a huge difference. We will only get an idea of what the parties are really going to do to capital spending, that other soft target, once they gain control of Whitehall. Both parties are following the rules of omerta on this subject. Martin Hewes, the economist who puts together our top 250, reckons public capital spending is set to fall 25% between the end of this year and 2013. Which means that those 66% of consultants who expect to leave staff numbers unchanged could be disappointed.
On the face of it, politicians’ promises about investment look safest in the area of high-speed rail, a topic mentioned approvingly at both main parties’ conferences. The Tories also spoke of the need to speed up the planning process for nuclear new build and offering incentives to councils for onshore windfarms.
Another policy outlined by the Tories is for households to spend up to £6,500 on energy improvements without any upfront cost (the money is to be paid back on owners’ utilities bills), a market said to be worth £2.5bn a year. Whichever party wins the next election is going to have to green the existing stock to meet our carbon reduction targets, so there will be work out there.
Whether this will be enough to balance out other capital spending cuts is impossible to say. For that you will have to wait for next year’s top 250 consultants …