Are the construction minister’s comments about PFI cause for concern about the government’s immediate agenda to help construction?
The question of what government is doing for the construction sector has always been a crucial concern for an industry that counts the public sector as its biggest client. And clearly, in the current economic climate, the relationship between industry and Whitehall is even more critical.
The depressing picture painted by the latest Office of National Statistics figures - an 8.5% drop in construction output in April compared with the same time last year - means that the core question over what the government is doing has never been more relevant.
We have seen a raft of recent initiatives from ministers aimed at boosting the sector, which despite pockets of success have overall fallen short of the hoped for impact. As Building has repeatedly said, it’s not that the will isn’t there; rather, it’s that the medicine isn’t really working. And one of the most often-cited reason for this, within the industry and among economic experts, is the failure to attract significant private finance to the sector - the government’s stated strategy to mitigate the heavy constraints on direct funding.
We have seen a raft of recent initiatives from ministers aimed at boosting the sector, which have overall fallen short
Which all makes it worrying to hear construction minister Mark Prisk say this week that, among the representations he receives from industry, PFI is not a top priority - and therefore (quite logically) it is not one of his. The other issues that Prisk says lobbyists put ahead of the queue, including skills and apprenticeships, are of course absolutely crucial to the long term future of the sector. But in terms of what the government can do for industry right now, surely finding forms of project finance that can get schemes off the ground - and ensure the survival of firms that can employ these workers in the future - has to be at the top of many companies’ wish list? Certainly, it is the first topic that many chief executives want to talk about, when asked by Building to give their take on the outlook for the sector. UKCG’s Stephen Ratcliffe is among those to have recently called for clarity on private financing.
The industry has long campaigned for a construction minister who is genuinely engaged with the sector, and who sticks around for long enough to make a difference. In Prisk, a qualified surveyor who long ago broke the one year “construction minister curse” it appears to have this. But his comments this week about PFI suggest that industry messaging around the issue - and, in all likelihood, on other critical issues - is being diluted by the plethora of bodies and individuals lobbying government over varying concerns.
If so, that is something that the industry’s leaders need to seek urgently to address. Former construction minster Nick Raynsford and architect Jack Pringle have both written in recent weeks calling for further reform in the way industry represents itself to government.
It’s something that certainly could help, but this kind of reform takes time. As a start, anyone - particularly those involved with trade bodies - reading Prisk’s comments this week should be asking: is this the immediate agenda we really want him to have? And if not, you know where to find him …
Sarah Richardson, editor
Mark Prisk is a keynote speaker at the Government Construction Summit, 2 July, London, organised by Building in partnership with the Department for Business Innovation & Skills and the Cabinet Office.
To book yout tickets, go to: www.governmentconstructionsummit.co.uk