Richard Steer was tired of shouting at the business secretary every time he appeared on his TV screen, so instead he invited him over for a bit of a chat …
Much of the blame for Ireland’s economic car crash has been laid at the door of its government, which is said to have ignored data from experts as things collapsed around it. On this side of the water our government does not face the same challenges, but as far as the built environment is concerned it too often appears ignorant of what is really happening on the ground. So often I have watched the chancellor or business secretary on Newsnight or Question Time and shouted at the screen that our industry is about a lot more than just house prices - the only topic that seems of interest to pundit or politician.
This should not be the case. After all, we seem to have more trade associations, institutions and lobby groups than any other industrial sector - about 200 at the last count. We even have our own construction adviser, Paul Morrell, appointed by the last government, although I am not sure how much impact he has on the new team.
Construction has so many voices, it is often perceived there is not one unifying message reaching the business secretary. That is something successive governments complain about and exploit
His newly published Low Carbon Construction Innovation and Growth Team report is not the tip-of-the tongue, attention-grabbing initiative that is going to capture
the news agenda.
So in an effort to try and do something about our apparent lack of profile and move the debate from my front room to the front bench, I arranged a gathering of key industry colleagues to meet Vince Cable, the business secretary. We agreed from the outset that our conversation would remain confidential, but I can tell you that over four hours and three courses the secretary of state heard from a housing contractor, an engineer, a banker, developers, funders, and people from the design side, as well as a big-name retailer and one of Europe’s largest airport operators from the property side. Cable was left in little doubt that we - who represent about 9% of the workforce - feel ignored.
When we met Cable, he had just finished filming the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas special, but he made no effort to soft-shoe shuffle around some of the more strident observations that his dinner companions had regarding the public sector cuts.
Although every sector tells the business secretary that it is the most important one, it is true that construction is vital to the economy and does feel under-represented at the top table. It is also a fact that we have so many representative voices, it is often perceived there is not one unifying message reaching the business secretary. This is something which successive governments have both complained about and exploited. Around our table we were clear that, although we are gradually emerging into the light, it is from a long, dark tunnel of misery.
It was also agreed that it is inevitable we will lose many of our most promising and essential tradesmen and women over the short to medium term. These are people who cannot wait for the upturn. That should be a worry; we have seen what a shortage of skilled labour has done in the past: it caused wages to rise, which feeds into an inflationary cycle.
Cable argued that that was why he was campaigning for a relaxation on immigration rules for the skilled professionals we will need. This may be too simplistic an approach and it may be for the government to take action at a domestic level to ensure we don’t lose these skills. It is one thing cutting 50% of the public sector workload and another to lose a whole generation of craftspeople.
This is the kind of message that should be reaching the ears of government. To my mind, it is more important than reports suggesting a fantasy 30% cut in costs to reach sustainability targets that most of our competitor companies in Europe will ignore. We need realistic and achievable objectives, not pie-in-the-sky rhetoric. Cable is undoubtedly one of the busiest men in government at the moment, but as I saw him to his ministerial car, he said he had learned much and wanted a continuing dialogue.
Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide