Next week the country takes to the polls for local elections, and the results will have a significant impact on future investment in construction and housing
Remember Blair and Brown’s billions? The vibrant design debates, the sparkling new schools, hospitals, health centres and the impact of amazing new public spaces? It gave everyone a much needed lift and boosted not only productivity but the morale of a nation – even if some eyebrows were raised over the cost overruns and dubious efficiencies associated with PFI.
Those years of ambitious investment feel almost like a dream now to contractors and consultants once drunk on the excesses of a clear pipeline of public sector work. Yet now more than ever is the time to make the case for significant investment in public services again. But it won’t happen if there is a lack of central government spending in its post-Brexit investment strategy. And it certainly won’t happen if we end up in development paralysis courtesy of a loony left slowly but surely taking over from Labour moderates across London and beyond (see news analysis).
Next week the country takes to the polls for local elections and the question will be to what extent Labour in-fighting limits the number of seats the Tories lose in London. The results of these polls will have a significant impact on future investment in construction and housing – perhaps as much as central government public expenditure plans, or the lack of them.
Whatever the poll results next week and whatever the impact turns out to be on development and housing regeneration schemes across London, do not let it mask the woeful lack of central government investment in public services
The elections come against a backdrop of construction forecasters predicting that industry output is likely to flat-line in 2018 before recovering in the following years. The number crunchers blame output decline in the first quarter on the uncertainty created by Brexit, the fallout from Carillion and on the impact of the Beast from the East – snow can still bring work to a standstill in this country, it seems. All in, it’s been an unhappy first quarter for the UK economy, notwithstanding that inflation has stabilised and interest rates remained low. The details behind the trends are largely as you would expect. Private housing is growing modestly and there is further growth in transport and infrastructure which is off-setting a decline in the commercial market and specifically the office sector – a decline that is a direct consequence of Brexit uncertainty and the inability of businesses to adequately plan ahead.
Many construction firms, large and small, are repositioning to align to the lucrative yet low risk repair and maintenance market for public services. But here too they face a squeeze: the sector fell 1.6% in February. So here’s another area where central government investment is required if the rupture of Brexit is not to drag businesses further into decline.
The fall in demand for new work in the public sector has to be reversed too. This is important not just to support a growing population and the additional housing that will be required, but also to position the UK to do business with new global partners. As Mark Robinson the chief executive of the Scape Framework puts it: “With only 12 months remaining in our Brexit negotiations, it is vital that the UK’s assets and infrastructure are fit for purpose, attract inward investment and create a strong independent economy.”
Public sector investment in a no-brainer when viewed against what the population needs to maintain standards of living and its public services. What is needed is a much greater, co-ordinated plan of investment in hospitals, schools, roads, bridges, power and transport targeted at specific sectors and regions of potential. Perhaps we can take some solace that planning and land-banking reviews are top of the agenda for Theresa May as the Tories target housing to get us out of the economic mire and towards growth again.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn’s Momentum movement is doing everything it can to wreck the system, even turning on the Labour party itself in its quest for dominance. In a massive power grab the ends justify the means for Corbyn’s allies and it’s not going to be good for anyone as they stall schemes, derail investor confidence and do their damnedest to pull everyone back to the 1980s – remember Militant anyone?
But whatever the poll results next week and whatever the impact turns out to be on development and housing regeneration schemes across London, do not let it mask the woeful lack of central government investment in public services which, if addressed strategically and properly, would prepare post-Brexit Britain for many of the challenges ahead and drive this industry forward again.
So it’s time for everyone to make the case fully for public sector investment. Otherwise prospects for our industry will simply remain as flat as the number crunchers are telling us they are.
Tom Broughton, editor-in-chief, Building