We’re fighting our corner with all the eloquence and ferocity of a strangled budgie, and as yet more thousands are laid off, no one is there to so much as protest at our fate, says Richard Steer

Apart from those working directly in, around or for our industry, I sometimes wonder whether anyone gives a damn what happens to construction. It is notable that when Laing O’Rourke laid off just short of 18,000 people, it did not even merit a whimper on the national news. The exception was Connaught, but that was different, as the firm’s fate was seen, probably erroneously, as symptomatic of the effects of public sector spending cuts and so merited a story on the six o’clock news.

In my own sector, none of us thought we would live to see Davis Langdon becoming part of USA inc. Even now Atkins has clocked up more than 2,500 redundancies over the past 18 months and Arup foresees 600 going as a result of public sector cuts. Be assured that wherever you see the big brands fall, there are hundreds of other smaller firms associated with them that are drowning in a sea of late payment problems and cash flow shortages. It is said that Aecom is looking to acquire a UK architect. I should imagine that given another 18 months of economic malaise and uncertainty, they can have their pick.

Also, without wishing to sound like Victor Meldrew, the misery is not over. The sword of Damocles still hangs over us all as the government ponders where the axe will fall when it announces details of its public sector cuts next month. I was not surprised by a recent survey from Ipsos Mori that revealed that UK consumers were among the most pessimistic in the world. Our economy was thought to be in a “very bad state” by 34% of domestic consumers. In India an amazing 85% of consumers view their economic situation as good. This is a country where half a billion people live on less than £1 a day.

So should anyone in government and beyond care about construction? At its peak the construction sector represented 12% of GDP and is still at nearly 8%. If Cadbury or Tesco had laid off 18,000 people in one day there would have been delegations to parliament, crisis summits and a queue of chief executives bemoaning the state of the UK economy. So as a potential lion of British industry, why have we got the strength, profile and dynamism of a strangled budgie? As one of the biggest UK employers in one
of the largest industries, where is our voice in government and outside? We just don’t seem to have an effective lobby and as a result we appear to have little traction with the government. It is time that our institutions, trade associations and tsars informed George Osborne that the ranks of the mass construction unemployed will be paying less personal tax, their struggling employers less corporate tax and everyone less VAT when our businesses flounder or fold. The private sector bail-out is not going to happen anytime soon.

As a potential lion of British industry, why have we got the strength, profile and dynamism of a strangled budgie?

The RICS recently published two state of trade surveys looking at construction and housing. They make for miserable reading. The latest survey from the Office for National Statistics shows construction orders fell 14% in the second quarter and private housing dropped 24%. There have been lots of depressing figures but no urgent voices bending the ears of our new political
leaders. When the banks were in the swamp you could not move for distressed bosses imploring the government for action. The same has been true of the car industry in the past. But where are our heroes? Who is banging the drum for construction? Behind the scenes Boris Johnson has staked his London mayoralty on the ringfencing of funds for Crossrail and tube improvements. Is his the only high-profile voice fighting for our industry? We should be highlighting the need for infrastructure improvement in road and rail. If our communication systems are lacklustre compared with our European competitors, the private sector will simply not invest in UK plc and the hoped-for replacement for the vanished public sector spend will not materialise. It is a false economy to restrict pump priming here. We do not need another flawed Building Schools for the Future programme but there has never been a better time to buy and we cannot expect our future generations to be taught in tents.

We need a strong voice at the heart of government that is not tainted by factional in-fighting or impeded by personal vanity. There is no point in having access to our leaders if we cannot use this power to bring about change. We need strong representation sooner rather than later. If it is there, I cannot see it and it is either being ignored or it is lost in the cacophony of competitive cries from other stronger advocates for far less important industries. And time is running out.
Richard Steer is senior partner in Gleeds