It was in August, reshuffle time, that Beverley Hughes was appointed junior minister in the DETR, with responsibility for construction, planning, regeneration, the regions, local government, green issues and, bizarrely, the Lake District’s transport. She would have been delighted, naturally, at reaching ministerial office so quickly. But when you have such a broad brief, construction might seem a bit like the cuckoo in the nest.
If that was her reaction, then she is working hard to fully integrate the awkward customer into her portfolio and her political vision. Construction may seem like a political backwater while the main business of government goes on elsewhere – in the Treasury, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Education and Employment, for example. But Hughes wants to emphasise that construction-related policy initiatives are connected directly with what the Treasury, the DTI and the DFEE are trying to do.
That, basically, is what the minister wants to get across. It is in the typed notes headed “Key Messages – Building magazine” at which she occasionally glances during the interview, and it is raised at every conference, meeting and site visit. “Construction has a role to play not just in the DETR’s big picture, but also in the wider government agenda,” she states. “It’s crucial to what we want to achieve in terms of the modernisation of Britain, and for the potential to add value in areas such as health, education and social priorities.”
Thus the cost-saving ideology of Sir John Egan’s Rethinking Construction report is all about getting extra value out of public expenditure; the aims of next summer’s urban white paper can be achieved only if the reinvented construction industry can squeeze the maximum out of the available resources and allow good design to flourish; the government’s Respect for People initiative is about taking the current Whitehall thinking on flexible working and extending employment opportunities to the heart of the tradition-soaked construction industry.
Hughes makes her case well, saying it is her desire to link these issues to the overall government agenda that “makes her a politician, not an official”. Before entering parliament, the 49-year-old MP for Stretford and Urmston was leader of Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council, a role she combined with seats on the boards of the Trafford Park Development Corporation and Manchester Airport. Both these roles, she says, gave her some insight into the work of major contractors in the public sector.
Construction is crucial to what we want to achieve in terms of the modernisation of Britain
On the other hand, some might argue that spinning construction into the centre of the New Labour project is useful camouflage for the fact that Hughes’ job description is so wide as to be overstretched, and comes without the executive decision-making powers usually associated with a minister. “The situation with Nick Raynsford [minister of state and construction minister] seems quite muddled,” says one industry lobbyist. “Where we’re talking joined-up government, how do ministers pick off bits of indivisible strategies to give to another minister?”
Hughes’ response is that her role is to support Armstrong on local government and regeneration, and Raynsford on planning and construction. The two ministers of state carry ultimate responsibility, while she “moves things forward in particular areas”, and acts as the first point of contact for outside interest groups. “Junior ministers’ responsibilities cut across the vertical policy hierarchy [of the DETR] to make sure that as a department we make the links,” she explains. “I’ve found that some of the cross-cutting issues do really come to the fore and expose themselves.”
By and large, the construction industry has been impressed at Hughes’ efforts so far. “She’s got a nice style about her – at our board meeting she was decisive but in listening mode,” comments Construction Industry Board chief executive Don Ward. “We probably won’t be seeing as much of Nick Raynsford now that he’s got wider responsibilities, but we’re very happy to be dealing with Beverley Hughes.”
Another industry insider agrees that Hughes, a former probation officer and university lecturer, impressively got to grips with the issues. “When we met, she was seriously on the ball. You’d expect a new minister to be cautious, but I found her quite on top of her brief. She stayed two hours in a meeting, when she could have made her excuses after half an hour.” He also appreciates that the appointment of Hughes and new minister for London, Keith Hill, returns the DETR to a traditional ministerial structure and frees up Armstrong and Raynsford.
The DETR job-sharing arrangement affects one of construction’s biggest policy initiatives, the quality mark scheme designed to squeeze out cowboy contractors from the market. Real responsibility still lies with Raynsford, but Hughes will be working with her senior colleague in turning the “first step” of Tony Merricks’ cowboy builders report into a workable scheme. “We’re very conscious that it’s a theoretical model, written on paper. We have to make sure that in the implementation we get something that really works,” she says.
The industry needs to be able to retain and recruit from the widest possible range of human resources
Hughes sticks to the well-established government line that the voluntary quality mark scheme must be given the chance to prove its worth before a statutory version can be considered. “We don’t want to be a burden or an impediment to the good, successful, competent small builders. There is a balance here, a bigger government agenda that we need to apply.” However, she points out that the DTI’s proposed reform of the Fair Trading Act has a “statutory edge” that will clip the wings of the worst rogue builders, and that “stronger mechanisms” may be considered in future.
Hughes has more room to stamp her own authority on the Respect for People initiative, the government’s drive to modernise the industry’s employment practices, which forms part of the Movement for Innovation. Hughes sees this as a mutual pact: the construction industry undertakes to improve its record on training, staff retention and recruiting from the widest pool of talent, including women and ethnic minorities, and the government offers financial and moral support in exchange for the social and economic benefits it expects will be delivered.
“The industry needs to be able to retain and recruit from the widest possible range of human resources and talent. If it’s not doing that, then it’s got one arm up its back,” says Hughes, adding that she would like to see construction employers adopt “family friendly” employment policies.
“It’s about investing in people, and reaching the people who don’t know there might be opportunities for them in the industry. It’s important for construction, for the government and for UK plc that the industry realises its full potential,” she concludes, returning neatly to her main theme.
But that is not to say Hughes’ interest in construction is limited to slotting it into the New Labour policy jigsaw. It is evident when Hughes talks of examining the industry’s working conditions for herself during her recent round of site visits. But as these sites have all been Movement for Innovation demonstration projects, she realises that the atmosphere at the industry’s model sites probably does not reflect the grotty conditions and casual discrimination that many face.