How to stick your oar in

Simon rawlinson landscape

Recent interventions by senior politicians into the sector highlight the pros and cons of engaging with our industry – it’s better when they don’t chase headlines

Simon rawlinson landscape

Last week it was reported that Theresa May had been required to intervene into the organisation of the Grenfell inquiry, responding to widespread calls for the appointment of an expert panel to support the second phase of hearings. Her response highlights the positive impacts that politicians can have in moving matters forward in response to a powerful case, but also demonstrates the administration’s problems in managing public perception of its role in the tragedy and its aftermath. If the agonies of Brexit were not enough to contend with, the prime minister must ultimately channel the UK’s response to the unfolding crisis triggered by Grenfell. These are unforgiving and reputation-sapping tasks demanding attention to detail, deep empathy and plenty of bandwidth – resources that are scarce in any administration, let alone a minority government.

On the same day, the leader of the opposition spoke publicly about other industry specifics – including the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV) as well as the poor payment practices that blight the industry. Clearly, both issues need careful debate. The immediate future of urban regeneration could be significantly affected by the resolution of the HDV, while sorting out payment issues cannot be separated from wider initiatives to improve industry performance. Jeremy Corbyn’s arguments, particularly that there should be another law requiring payment within 30 days, highlight the risks of applying the politician’s broad-brush perspective to a fiendishly difficult problem. It’s not just that there is already legislation in place to deal with payment in construction, but that late payment is the symptom of deeper problems at the heart of the industry’s need to transform itself. 

It matters when politics and industry collide because their words can have real heft at a local or sector level. Comments by Labour’s NEC look as if they have been highly influential in determining the future of the HDV. Similarly, Sajid Javid’s engagement with the housing crisis has moved the agenda forward, but with a distinct preference for solutions coming from the private sector. What’s more, this week, MPs will publish further findings on Carillion. Politicians’ interventions in industry should perhaps be rare and should always be used with care, calling out or responding to genuine injustice as is the case with Grenfell, or perhaps in nudging the industry in the right direction – highlighted recently by Chris Grayling’s advocacy for the Transport Infrastructure Efficiency Strategy (TIES). 

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