“The British people have lost confidence in Tony Blair but still prefer him as prime minister to Michael Howard,“ a poll in The Times revealed this week.
Had it taken a poll of construction professionals, it would probably have reached the same conclusion. With public spending now accounting for 40% of turnover, the industry still knows which side its bread is buttered. That said, the publication of the Construction Products Association’s report this week acted as a timely warning of just how frustrated firms are becoming with the government’s ability to deliver its education, healthcare and transport pledges (see page 12).
Of course, it is understandable that if you only commission one hospital in your lifetime, it is vital to get it right. But the endless deliberations and constant reinvention of the wheel is adding delays to the delays. The effect of this on the industry is two-fold. First, planning for the future becomes guesswork – and which supplier wants to invest in a new factory based on that? The second effect, as we report on pages 26-28, is that contractors lose interest in the UK as their PFI expertise rapidly becomes a prize export. After all, who wants to spend £11m bidding for a project they might not win, when pickings in Spain and France are richer and easier?
Nobody is expecting the government to wave a magic wand. Of course, construction of a multimillion-pound hospital is a complicated business, and even more so if it is a supersized scheme such as the beleagured Paddington Health Campus project. But it has to look for ways to make the process simpler and be more realistic, or honest, with its targets.
Prescott’s grand designs
Over to housing – another area where industry and government are hardly in unison. John Prescott has well and truly been flexing his Old Labour credentials, not least by announcing a plan in Brighton that amounts to a nationalised housebuilding programme. The deputy prime minister caught everyone on the hop – even his key civil servants – with proposals for building key worker homes on government-owned land that would be sold for just £60,000.
And what (in principle) a good idea, given we’re in the middle of a terrible housing crisis. But the problem with rushing an announcement out for conference troops is that its details can be written on postage stamp. His idea creates more questions than answers – such as exactly how a two-bedroom home in a “sustainable community” could be provided for such a sum.
Prescott is clearly banking on off-site manufacture to help bring down construction costs and push up quality, as he writes in this week’s supplement. But industry experts – even those without any vested interest – maintain that if there isn’t also substantial government funding in place for all the necessary infrastructure, such a scheme would not stack up financially (page 13).
The other thing the government should not do if it goes ahead with the plan, is to repeat the mistakes of its past. The ODPM must ensure that, unlike cash from council house sales, all receipts from its modern-day state-subsidised homes are ploughed back into affordable housing.
Denise Chevin, editor