Construction has been bounced around portfolios since 2001. But this industry needs a dedicated minister, working out of a strong Department of the Environment. Come on, Gordon, do the right thing
Construction people, especially those active in their federations, often ask me about the industry’s relationship with the government. My first response is that 95% of firms have no dealings with ministers or civil servants at all. They may have business with local government or housing associations, but it will be undertaking work for clients, whether on a tendered or strategic partnership arrangement. Such work is vital for their cash flow. They leave politics to the federation president and director-general, if they think about it at all.
Federation heads deal regularly with ministers and top civil servants and discuss major political issues with them, including workload, taxation, payment problems, the progress of adjudication under the 1996 Construction Act and many other topics. When I was writing Constructing the Team in 1993/94, there was a large construction department within the then Department of the Environment, headed by a senior official called Phillip Ward. I had Deborah Bronnert, a full-time civil servant secondee to help me, and she was invaluable.
Just before the change of government in 1997, Ward was replaced by John Hobson.
At the new Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), John Prescott commissioned the Egan report, which was published in 1998. While the delivery of Egan was carried out effectively by the Movement for Innovation, which co-existed uneasily with the Construction Industry Board until 2001, Hobson’s department came under a staff squeeze and began to fall in numbers.
The big change came in 2001, after Tony Blair’s re-election. Construction was transferred to the DTI. The materials manufacturers had favoured that switch, because their main interest was in new European rules or standards, which have always been the DTI’s responsibility.
Although I was not publicly critical of the new arrangements, I was uneasy because the DTI deals with dozens of industries. The new construction sector unit was smaller than in the DETR. It was headed by Elizabeth Whatmore, who was extremely competent but not as senior as Ward or Hobson.
Also, Tony Baldry and Robert Jones in the Tory government and Nick Raynsford in the Labour government of 1997 to 2001 had definitely been construction ministers. The new DTI minister in 2001, Brian Wilson, had umpteen other problems to tackle and so have his successors: Nigel Griffiths, Alun Michael and Margaret Hodge.
The DTI construction unitis now very small. There is only so much its civil servants can achieve when so short-handed
Over the past five years, the construction unit has shrunk still further and is now very small. That is no criticism of its civil servants, or Dennis Walker, its new head, but there is only so much they can achieve when they are so short-handed. None of the published timescales of the review of the Construction Act have been met. The construction unit is not to blame. They do not have enough people to deal with such a complex and highly controversial subject to the timescale originally envisaged, when they have other important duties as well.
Within the next eight months there will be a new prime minister, probably Gordon Brown. He will have much on his mind, but his first task will be to restructure the government.
I hope he will recreate the Department of the Environment. It is only 10 years since we last had one and there was a DoE under five prime ministers from 1970 to 1997.
The department should deal with construction, transport, housing and planning, local government and the environment and sustainability issues that were transferred to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs a few years ago.
There will always be tension between those who want to build and those who want to conserve, but infighting between government departments is not the best way to resolve these issues. Strong secretaries of state such as Peter Walker, Geoffrey Rippon, Peter Shore, Tony Crosland and Michael Howard in the 1970s and 1980s showed how workable policies could emerge from discussion within the department and a firm political lead.
One minister in the department should be specifically responsible for construction and should have a strong sector unit to provide briefing and action.
Gordon Brown, as chancellor, launched the review of the Construction Act in his 2004 Budget. It was his initiative. The review has produced many positive proposals and those relating to adjudication are generally agreed. I hope he will see it through parliament when he becomes prime minister – and do so with a much stronger environment department to make it happen.