How to provide better representation for the construction industry and keep David Blunkett out of trouble, all in one simple government shake-up

If we had to imagine what issue would be furthest from the minds of small building firms, including single person businesses, whose views and feelings are so well articulated by my fellow Building columnist John Smith, it would be which government department and which minister should sponsor construction. Large firms such as Willmott Dixon do have concerns about such matters, because so much of our work is public sector-related – and many small firms do work with them as highly valued subcontractors and suppliers. That is why we should be concerned about the level of co-ordination by government over the workload of an industry that is likely to have topped £100bn for the first time in 2004 and accounts for about 7.5 to 8.5% of GDP.

There is nothing sacrosanct about the current departmental structure, which dates from the week after the 2001 general election. The prime minister has many strengths, but even his closest admirers admit that cabinet reshuffles are not among them. They tend to be driven by immediate political concerns and have little to do with the specific requirements of the ministry in question, let alone the industries to which it is related.

In the old days, it used to be said that the Ministry of Agriculture represented farmers, the Ministry of Health represented doctors, the Ministry of Education represented teachers and the Foreign Office represented foreigners. The current arrangement for construction is that the DTI sponsors it, the ODPM deals with housing and planning, the Department for Work and Pensions with safety, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport with architecture and design, the Department for Environment, Food and Agriculture with sustainability, the Department for Education with skills training and higher education, and the Department for Transport is a standalone department that is responsible for the Highways Agency. The Office of Government Commerce, which is responsible for best practice public sector procurement guidance, reports to the Treasury, the ultimate decision-maker over public sector construction expenditure. There used also to be a Government Construction Clients Panel, bringing together big clients such as Defence Estates and the Highways Agency, but it currently seems to be defunct through lack of political impetus.

That melange of ministries is not joined-up government. The prime minister could be 10 weeks away from calling a general election that he is widely expected to win, and which would require him to construct a new government directly afterwards. He also wants to find a top job for David Blunkett. So I will make a suggestion. How about creating a new Department of the (Built) Environment, or DBE? After all, it will be nearly eight years since we last had one. And David Blunkett would be an excellent secretary of state to head it.

Decisions used to be taken within the same ministry – not after protracted interdepartmental cat fights

What should it do? The clue is to look at what happened in 1970, when Ted Heath first created a Department of the Environment, headed by Peter Walker. This super-ministry was responsible for housing, planning, architecture and design, construction sponsorship, water, local government and, intermittently, transport. This generally allowed the planners, builders and the environmentalists to work together and to seek to produce mutually acceptable proposals from their (sometimes conflicting) viewpoints. There was plenty of scope for disagreement, and by no means everything worked smoothly, but at least there was an opportunity for political decisions within the same ministry, rather than after protracted interdepartmental cat fights. We need to return to that.

So, let’s have the DBE. Transport should be an essential part of it, since it is absurd that local government and planning are separated from crucial decisions about infrastructure and also from issues of construction capacity, wider industrial requirements and environmental considerations. The Government Construction Clients Panel should be reconvened, and should be chaired by the chief secretary to the Treasury and serviced by the Treasury and the OGC.

That leaves safety, apprenticeships and training and professional education, issues to which I will return. A happy new year to you all, and good business!