MPs are frequently having their ears bent by lobby groups opposed to construction activity, but the run-up to May’s election is a real opportunity to redress the balance

Nick Raynsford

With a general election fast approaching, I have been reflecting on the changes over the past quarter century in how the construction industry is perceived by politicians and how far it impacts on the political process.

When I first contested the Greenwich parliamentary constituency in 1992, we were still in the early stages of recovery from the 1989-91 recession and I was surprised how little political focus there was on stimulating growth through construction activity. In part this reflected a negative perception of the industry at that time, often stereotyped as dirty and dangerous, with a poor track record on delivering on time and within budget and a terrible reputation for litigation and poor labour relations. The part of London I was seeking to represent had suffered massively from the closure of most of the traditional heavy industry on which the local economy has depended, but there was very little expectation of recovery through regeneration and development. 

Fast forward 23 years and the picture is very different. Cranes tower over the landscape and massive regeneration programmes on the Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, as well as several other local sites are raising opposite worries to those of the early nineties. “Will the pace and scale of new development irreversibly change the character of the area to the disadvantage of local residents?” was not a concern much voiced in 1992, but is a real worry now for many constituents who see new residential blocks being sold at prices way beyond their means.

Candidates standing for election will in the main have little detailed understanding of the industry, in part because the industry has never geared up to influence the political debate

This partly reflects London’s remarkable success in recent years. Indeed the transformation of our capital city - which was still in the eighties suffering from population and industrial decline - has been one of the most significant changes of the past 25 years.

Over that same period the industry has also experienced substantial change. It is no longer taken for granted that we will have difficulty in delivering major projects successfully. Both the 2012 Olympics and Crossrail have been terrific advertisements for the industry. We also now better understand the importance of long-term planning to meet our country’s infrastructure needs, and of the benefits that new housing developments bring to the wider economy.

But we are still massively underperforming in terms of new house construction. In none of the past four years have we managed to complete 120,000 homes in the year - less than half the number required to meet the country’s needs. So there is a huge challenge to lift housing output to at least 200,000 a year in the next parliament.

Compared with where we were in the early nineties there has been a real advance in understanding how to build more sustainably and cut carbon emissions. Our new homes perform far better thanks mainly to the ratcheting up of energy performance standards in Part L of the Building Regulations, but the story on retrofitting existing buildings is very different. The much vaunted Green Deal provides one of the most abject illustrations of the government’s failure to live up to its initial aspirations. 

The industry’s safety record has improved, although there are still too many avoidable fatalities and injuries, and the lingering public perception of construction as “dirty and dangerous” remains a major obstacle to attracting new recruits. The inadequacy of current training programmes to supply the industry’s needs is one of the biggest outstanding challenges.

The industry still remains surprisingly fragmented despite all the recommendations of the Latham and Egan reports and the work which went into the implementation programmes such as the Movement for Innovation. BIM looks promising as a force for better integration and joint working but there is still some way to go to ensure its widespread adoption.

But perhaps most worryingly, construction is still punching way below its weight in terms of influencing politicians and political debate. Candidates standing for election this May will in the main have little detailed understanding of the industry, in part because the industry has never geared up to influence the political debate in the way so many others do. Over the many years that I have served as an MP, I can probably count on one hand the number of visits to my constituency advice “surgery” from representatives of the construction industry. By contrast other lobbying groups - some distinctly hostile to construction activity - flock in droves to try to bend my ear. I hope it is not just because I am retiring at this election that I end this article with a plea to all those who care about the industry and its future to make best use of the next two months to lobby the politicians. Building’s Agenda 15 campaign provides a good summary of key issues politicians should be considering. They need your votes, so do ensure they understand what the construction industry is capable of delivering to improve our country.

Nick Raynsford MP is honorary vice chairman of the Construction Industry Council and MP for Greenwich and Woolwich