None of this self-serving political melodrama is going to help us build things

Richard steer bw 2017

The last two-and-a-half years has seemed like the political and economic equivalent of a slow-motion car crash. Is it any wonder we see the latest data from IHS/Markit showed that activity fell again among commercial firms and civil engineers, with a small uplift in housebuilders. Architects to whom I speak are beginning to be seriously impacted and the dearth of vacancies in their practices is a grim illustration of the stultifying effect Brexit is having on us all.

Confidence among many clients is apparently at levels last seen after the 2008 crash and the potential for an uplift anytime soon seems unlikely. True, there is still some work out there but with lenders equally nervous about the future, even if you are busy many subcontractors are not keen or simply unable to extend themselves by tendering until there is more clarity.

The most overused phrase at the moment is “we are where we are”. In other words it’s no good complaining about matters you cannot change. Many firms have pared back recruitment, cut capital projects and are on a kind of autopilot arrangement. This is a zombie government presiding over a zombie economy and depressingly I cannot see anything changing anytime soon.

This is a zombie government presiding over a zombie economy and depressingly I cannot see anything changing anytime soon

However, for politicians who love being in the spotlight Brexit has been like catnip. Day after day, hour after hour the spotlight shines on their every move. I am told that on occasions the BBC Parliament channel has been rivalling TV’s EastEnders for popularity as the endless debates have proved a ratings winner, even when the roof literally caves in as it did with last weeks’ rain deluge.

However, our parliamentarians do not earn the money to support our economy, they spend it. It is business that has to bear the heavy lifting responsibility, from paying national insurance, value-added tax and corporation tax, as well as new enhanced pension contributions and many more levies besides that keep the UK afloat. Where has the voice of industry been in all this? It no wonder that many Japanese firms that do business in this country have announced they are off to pastures new.

For politicians who love being in the spotlight Brexit has been like catnip

The contempt felt for our industry by those in power is epitomised Boris Johnson – a possible future PM – who once said “fuck business”. This government has little feel or interest in the construction and property sector. Richard Harrington, the ex-construction minister, who recently fell on his sword over Brexit was only in post for two years, his predecessor for even less time. There have been seven housing ministers in eight years. With this conveyor-belt approach to the department figureheads, it is not surprising that targets are being missed.

This government has little feel or interest in the construction and property sector

In January, a cross-party commission led by the housing charity Shelter urged ministers to embark on a government-backed housebuilding programme to construct 3.1 million new social homes over the next two decades. To put this into context, in the six months up to 30 September 2018 there were just 9,909 affordable homes under construction.

The government’s proposed post Brexit immigration policy will hamper our industry’s ability to hire, train and employ a future workforce with so many of the current skilled workers departing the UK prior to our conscious uncoupling from the EU. Let alone the cost hike following a drop in sterling after the 2016 referendum. How is any of this going to help us build?

How is any of this going to help us build?

Brexit always had a political dynamic driving it forward, it was a mess created by politicians to serve their own agenda. There was never a referendum to establish if we wanted a referendum. Now it has been mishandled by the same people that wanted it and we are all paying the price. Unlike EastEnders it is not a fictionalised soap opera. It is a scary reality that in terms of plot lines has a catastrophic beginning, a confused middle and no apparent end.

Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide

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