Despite claims that Westminster has entered a ‘zombie state’, it’s the perfect time for the industry to be putting forward policy ideas
The mocking descriptions of a “zombie parliament” that followed the revelation last week that MPs have vacated Westminster a week early for their spring break have only confirmed what most have suspected for months. With an election now just a year away, and the coalition partners increasingly focused on their own agendas, the chance of any significant policy announcements is rapidly dwindling. And, similarly, the rush to spend on capital projects that usually accompanies a government’s last year in office has been replaced by inertia. Existing spending programmes may have been topped up slightly, but fresh ideas and long-term commitments are scarce.
Against this backdrop, Building is entering the final three weeks of its Agenda 15 consultation, in which we are asking the industry to suggest policy ideas that could form a manifesto with which to lobby the political parties in the run up to next May’s election. And if the comparisons between parliament and the walking dead show one thing, it is that there is a huge opportunity for the industry to steer the next government’s policy direction.
Since Building launched Agenda 15 in January, the responses we have received from the industry have suggested ways of boosting sustainable retrofit work, ensuring longer-term infrastructure planning, accelerating the building of schools, and creating a better regional balance of development. If you have not already contributed your views to the initiative, we encourage you to do so - our consultation questions are on pages 32-33 of this issue and online at www.building.co.uk/agenda15.
The six months since Agenda 15 was launched have been characterised by an improving construction market, led by a single area of government policy - Help to Buy - and a returning private commercial sector. But for this trend, which saw industry output increase by 5.4% in Q1 compared with the same period in 2013, to continue the industry needs a more supportive policy environment across a far wider range of sectors.
It also needs whichever party - or parties - that triumphs in the polls next May to be ready to enter government with a clear outline of how policy could work, and a framework within which to prioritise capital spending. Otherwise, any attractive headline figures which are unveiled by the next government’s Treasury risk falling victim to the kind of delays that have plagued many large public sector led construction programmes.
One example is the current government’s recent announcement of an additional £2bn for schools under the Priority School Building Programme, due to be released from 2015. This spending will fall under the next parliament, but it is hard to imagine any party reducing the amount available. But, as yet, no detail has been announced around allocating the funding. And if the money is not tied to specific schemes, its release is more vulnerable to being pushed back - as the PSBP itself experienced in its early days.
With the sector’s recovery gathering pace, the last thing the industry needs is for it to be slowed down to a zombie-like shuffle, undermined by a long period of political hiatus, or by protracted wrangling over policies which could help it to deliver the improvements to the built environment that the economy urgently needs.
There may be little the sector can do to counteract the walking dead tendencies of the current parliament, but by contributing your suggestions to our campaign now, you could help breathe life into the next.
Sarah Richardson, editor