Once upon a time, the government saw construction as a vital lever for regulating the economy, and gave it an entire minister. These says it gets an average of seven minutes of Alun Michael’s day. So what can he accomplish in that time?
Nick Raynsford, Brian Wilson, Nigel Griffiths, and now Alun Michael. The conveyor belt continues its two-yearly cycle of construction minister. But there’s one difference with this latest office holder – he has even less time to spend on the industry than his predecessors.
It shows, too. In the course of a 45-minute conversation, it becomes apparent that Michael does not know much about key policies such as the PFI or impending disasters such as the CIS tax scheme. If the extent of his brief was to cover construction alone, Michael would be open to criticism.
The fact that his brief is so vast says much about the government’s attitude to construction, and the predicament of whoever is chosen to be its minister. Construction may be Britain’s biggest industry, but Michael is also in charge of more than 40 others, including aerospace, telecoms and e-commerce, as well as being minister for the regions. This means that if he divides his time equally across his portfolio, works a 60-hour week and spends half his time on the regions, he’s got seven-and-a-half minutes a day to think about construction.
So how long does he devote to the industry? “I’m not sure I can classify it in that way,” he replies. “At one point the regional development agencies and aerospace may command a disproportionate amount of time. It’s rather more about making sure my team of officials can focus my time on what’s really necessary, and working with Peter Rogers as chair of the Strategic Forum.”
Michael, MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, does have experience of the industry from the client side – and of working with Rogers, too. Twenty years ago, he was the chair of the development and planning committee in his native Cardiff. More recently, as secretary of state for Wales, he worked with Rogers on the ill-fated Welsh Opera House.
Rogers recalls him from those days. “He was good,” he says, “very clear, very forceful. And he has experience of being a client, which is good for the industry.” Michael also has fond memories of those days, and of working with the modern construction industry. He’s particularly impressed by the greater emphasis the industry places on skills compared with the 1970s, and on the quality of its senior management, which he thinks is well above the general run of British executives when it comes to ambition and innovation.
He likes the way the industry now works together – easily the most important organisational issue of the past 15 years – although he thinks it still has some way to go, particularly on major projects. “Supply chain issues apply generally across British industry,” he says. “If the suppliers and subcontractors are able to operate successfully and compete that helps the success of the main contractor. But again, I sense a will to improve the quality of the supply chain, not just in construction but in a number of industries.”
But Michael has too much on his plate.
As Peter Rogers says: “He’s enthusiastic, competent and overstretched. He’s got too many portfolios and considering the scale and importance of the built environment it’s a pity we don’t have a dedicated construction minister and a stronger department. I think he’s more focused than Nigel Griffiths and because of his experience in Wales he’s got more experience of the industry. But he only has so many hours in the day.”
Peter Commins, the chairman of the Construction Confederation, agrees. “I think the good thing about Alun Michael is that he’s willing to listen and learn,” he says. “I’d prefer he hadn’t got all the other things to do. But he’s got an agenda and he drives it.”
Michael is planning to meet senior industry figures in every quarter to drive forward this agenda, which concentrates on training and skills, integration and sustainable design.
But then he ought to know about them because they’re also germane to those other forty-odd industries that Michael works with. It’s when he is asked slightly more construction-specific questions that his lack of detail becomes apparent.
A good example is the PFI, and the industry’s six-year long howl of complaint over the cost of bidding and the length of time it takes to do a deal. In principle, Michael is clearly right to say, as he did at a Labour conference fringe event organised by the Construction Products Association, that the PFI is a matter for the Treasury. Yes, the Treasury develops PFI policy, but the construction minister represents the industry’s views on the procurement method in government. He should not ignore its pleas. Especially after Commins’ keynote speech on the PFI at that fringe event, which included the memorable line: “Minister, please help us to help you”.
One week on, Michael is willing to elaborate slightly on the PFI. “I think it’s part of my role to make sure the industry’s concerns are understood across government, although of course the industry can make recommendations itself,” he says.
Alun Michael is enthusiastic, competent and overstretched. He’s got too many portfolios, and considering the importance of the built environment we should have a dedicated minister
Peter Rogers, Strategic Forum
“I certainly see it as part of my role to be part of joined-up government, but that’s a little different from being a lobbyist for the industry. The industry can do that quite well for itself, thank you very much.”
These don’t seem the words of a fully engaged, all-action construction minister. So what does he actually think of the PFI? “My officials keep me aware of the concerns, but also of the countervailing pressures.”
“I’m not going to get too deeply involved in PFI,” he sighs. “The whole point of it is to ensure that major projects are managed to give the best possible return on a public investment. In the past there have been concerns that perhaps it hasn’t served the public interest so well. My impression is that greater safeguards on the public side and greater professionalism on the private side are things that have been driven forward a lot over recent years.”
Michael seems to be that rare beast, a politician who underplays his actual powers. He has a natural wariness, a result perhaps of the political streetfights he has been involved with – there was his battle with Rhodri Morgan, his successor as first minister at the Welsh assembly, and he was rural affairs minister at the height of the fox-hunting protests. He was actually at the despatch box when pro-hunt protesters stormed the Commons in September last year.
On the Olympics he is fully engaged but, again, hardly beating the drum for UK industry. Rather, he believes that is for industry to help itself by being imaginative, competitive, and by looking at ways to offer the best product. Others will take the spoils if they do not, he says.
On public procurement, Michael is again reluctant to get in to the detail of the Construction Products Association’s annual report into government spending, which made the fairly fundamental point that key targets on road, rail and school building were not being met. However, he does say he believes that there could be more procurement processes that minimise pointless repetition and maximise transparency. Good news for PFI reformers, perhaps.
Less reassuring is his lack of awareness of the CIS tax fiasco. This is an online tax system that is to be brought in in April despite the fact that the software to operate it doesn’t work properly. Michael says he isn’t aware of the detail. He should be.
Where Michael is more impressive is in his emphasis on using his regional role to help construction. Each RDA will be a lead organisation for a certain industry. This means that although each will compile details on what construction skills are needed in its area, the construction industry will be able to go to a single point of contact at the South East England Development Agency. Michael says: “The important trick to pull off with trade bodies is to connect them with the regional development agenda.”
Michael seems to see his brief as being something far more strategic than simply to champion his 40-plus industries. He wants to drive economic development across the UK. “My brief reflects the nature of the DTI as a department. I have industry teams dealing with each separate industry and its concerns, but we also have the RDAs dealing with economic weaknesses, region by region.”
Michael clearly believes in the benefits of stitching together his regional and industry roles. “I’m delighted that the two responsibilities come within my portfolio as it gives me the chance to make the conversation between specific industry interests and the clear government commitment to drive economic regeneration through the RDAs.
“I have the responsibility to be a pot of glue,” he concludes. “Actually, an integrated circuit probably sounds better.” That may be, but it remains to be seen how long our construction minister can handle his overstuffed portfolio before becoming unstuck.
Alun Michael at a glance
MP for Cardiff South and Penarth since 1987
Minister of state, Home Office, 1997-98
Secretary of state for Wales, 1998-99
First minister of Wales, 1999-2000
Minister of state for rural affairs, 2001-05
Construction minister, 2005-
February 1999, beat Rhodri Morgan to be Labour candidate for first minister for Wales
February 2000, replaced as first minister for Wales by Rhodri Morgan
The first minister to serve as a juror. This followed legislation in April last year that ended MPs being exempt from jury service. Only one other juror recognised him.