David Cameron is about to lead his revitalised Conservatives to their first electoral test. But is the party really heading for a bright new future, filled with construction-friendly policies? Mark Leftly investigates, and asks Building readers how they'll vote.

Blue dawn

Illustration by Laurence Whitely

The bright young things of David Cameron's Conservative party face their first big test next week. And as the local elections approach, the Tories are on the up - even if the "honeymoon period" of a five-point lead over Labour seems to be over.

And it seems the construction industry has already fallen for the new-look Tories' charms. A survey of Building readers gives the Conservatives a lead of 12.6 percentage points over Labour, compared with just 3.5 points before last year's general election. That a traditionally anti-development party can enjoy such popularity among builders is one of the most significant trends of the past year, but whether it is indicative of a genuine change of direction from the Tories or just of dissatisfaction with the government is a moot point. Whatever the truth, contractors and housebuilders are no longer only trying to meet Labour ministers to influence policy. For the first time in a decade, the Tories are emerging as a genuine threat to the government.

"I can understand why we've got that response from the industry," says Michael Gove, the shadow housing minister. Part of Cameron's so-called "Notting Hill set" of leading younger Tories, Gove was well known for his opinion column in The Times before becoming MP for Surrey Heath last May.

Gove says it is not just that the Tories have appealed to the industry, but that Labour has alienated many who work in it. He points to the government's refusal to reduce stamp duty and the introduction of home information packs (HIPs) - documents that a house seller has to provide before exchanging contracts with a buyer - describing them as "interventions to the market". He also says the government has failed to back up its housing growth plans with enough detail on how it will build the infrastructure to support new communities: "People see all the costs of development but none of the benefits - they see more people in the area, more strain on health facilities, very little improved infrastructure."

If there was a general election this month, which party would you vote for?

By arguing against market interventions, the Conservative party is sticking to an essentially Thatcherite philosophy that pleases its core supporters. Where it is trying to change is by escaping its anti-development roots and supporting housebuilding, provided it has suitable infrastructure and is environmentally sustainable. Cameron has taken care to be seen to be taking the issue of development seriously, meeting with Berkeley and two other housebuilders last month and publicly attacking HIPs as "bureaucratic". Likewise, when Gove took up his housing position nearly five months ago, he was quick to organise a meeting with Stuart Baseley, House Builders Federation chairman, which Gove described as "very positive". This was followed by shadow chancellor George Osborne's announcement that the Conservatives would look at freeing up some greenfield land for development, leading to public praise from Baseley: "The announcement that the party will take a fresh look at the planning system and the definition of greenfield land signals an important new approach to housing."

How this will play with the middle Englanders that worry about concreting over the South-east is unclear - Gove admits that at the local level the Tories are still viewed as being opposed to new schemes. For example, Tory councillors in Hove were elected partly thanks to their pledge to oppose the £290m King Alfred leisure and homes development, designed by Frank Gehry.

The industry, however, seems to be impressed. Philip Davies, chief executive of Linden Homes, says: "The Tories recognise that we are heading towards disaster with the introduction of home information packs, possibly one of the government's worst ideas."

The Construction Products Association agrees that the Tories are more inclined to listen to the industry, pointing to a building policy seminar to be held next month. A CPA spokesperson says: "The Tories realise that they can no longer form policy in a vacuum."

Who do you think would make the best prime minister?

The right energy

This is all very well, but Cameron's GMTV appearances and lack of detailed policy leave many to wonder if there is any substance behind his proclamations. Certainly, the newspaper leak earlier this year that he is to install a £10,000 wind turbine on the roof of his new London house had the feel of a publicity stunt.

Cameron's architect, Alex Michaelis of Michaelis Boyd, disagrees, saying Cameron approached him with the basic idea: "He does seem genuinely interested in eco-friendly housing, which is quite rare - probably only 15-20% of our clients really are. He really wanted us to make this house as energy-efficient as possible."

And last week Cameron strengthened his pro-environment image by proposing a levy to reduce the use of carbon fuels. But critics argue that it wouldn't be hard for the Tories to improve their environmental credentials. Nick Raynsford, Building columnist and a former Labour construction minister, says recent Conservative governments have had an appalling ecological record: "They are attempting to present themselves as a green party. We have to ask ourselves, how serious is it? Has the leopard changed its spots?"

Raynsford also says the Building survey simply shows "a Cameron bounce" and that it is premature to judge the party on its construction policies, as they are, so far, undetailed "statements of intent". He adds: "I literally do not know what their policy is on things like planning." Osborne has hinted that he might support a social cost tariff, whereby developers give money to councils affected by their schemes. Yet, he has only said he will "look at" the idea and, given that it goes against traditional Tory anti-taxation principles, it is understandable Raynsford and others are confused.

Shadow construction minister Mark Prisk says the lack of detailed policy - which might help explain Labour's 10-point lead on "best policies" in the survey (above, right) - is because he has been "wary of jumping in, talking before I have listened to the industry". Few in the industry could name him as the Tories' construction spokesman - one major trade body even thought the position was still held by Charles Hendry, who handed over to Prisk last December. But Prisk is trying to raise his profile, hosting a seminar on 16 May of 15 to 18 leading lights in the industry. From this, he hopes to form policy on issues such as payment and the PFI; the latter he thinks has been "overcomplicated" by continual rule changes. Prisk's findings will feed into the review of the competitiveness of the British economy led by right-winger John Redwood.

The Tories are also hoping to develop policies through the party's recently established green policy group. Former cabinet minister John Gummer and Zac Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist, head up the group and are looking at how to make houses 40% more energy efficient. Their jobs are largely based around the buzzword "sustainability", and this fuels Gummer's opposition to Labour's housing growth strategy, which is focused on south-east England. He says: "We are going to have to recommend pretty drastic changes - you can't build without thinking about the water supply. There is an automatic assumption to build to the south of Milton Keynes. We want to provide infrastructure growth over the whole of England. The biggest problem is that it is easier to get to Paris from London than it is to get to Newcastle. Ridiculous."

What party has the best policies for construction?

Gummer is one of two old warhorses that Cameron has brought back to the front line. The other is Lord Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister who is often credited as the mastermind behind the regeneration of London Docklands and Liverpool in the 1980s and 1990s. He is setting up a regeneration committee, which will come up with policy proposals late next year.

Heseltine's speech to the Tory spring conference earlier this month hinted at his major focus: reforming local government. He spoke of replacing the twin roles of local authority chief executive and council leader with just one boss who is accountable to the electorate. He believes this person will have the political weight to do without central government interference and that this will free up local authorities to regenerate their communities. "We need the courage to believe in experimentation and diversity," he says.

Cooking up a storm in local government Heseltine admits, however, that his proposals will not necessarily be taken up by Cameron. "I'm like a head waiter - I can produce a menu, but cannot force them to make a choice," he says.

Moreover, Heseltine is struggling to find the chefs to whip up the dishes, saying he might have to rethink the idea of forming a committee made up of the great and the good from construction and property: "A fair number of people are happy to talk to me about their ideas, but don't want to get involved with a political party because of their public position."

Heseltine adds that many companies he speaks to have a clear idea of what should be done in their part of the industry, but are "not so interested in the mechanics of local government".

Worse still, there are many who feel the Tories have minimal impact on their working lives - and that even goes for some of their staunchest supporters. Roger Feast, chairman of construction company McLaren, voted Conservative last year. He says Cameron has not so much wowed the industry as performed well with the electorate at large: "There's definitely a mood. It's more to do with Labour's negativity - the sleaze angle. Construction-wise, neither party says much about us."

Andy Sturgess, Galliford Try director, adds: "Construction output would be neutral whichever party was in power. There's demand for our services, so spending will pretty much stay the same."

Perhaps Feast and Sturgess are correct and Cameron's crew will not make much impact on construction. But one thing is for sure: the industry is certainly starting to notice the Tories again.

The bright young things: The boss

Eton-educated David Cameron defied the critics who said a toff could never again lead one of the two major parties by beating David Davis to the Tory party crown last December. With his sharp media performances, he has revitalised the grand old party of British politics.

Typical construction-related quote:

‘Too many of Britain’s urban areas have been left behind by Labour and let down by complicated and contradictory bureaucratic schemes’

The bright young things: The right-hand man

George Osborne was thought at one point to be a contender for the top job, but at 34 many thought him too young and so he masterminded his good friend Cameron’s leadership campaign. Still, his talent had already been recognised by Michael Howard, who handed him the shadow chancellor portfolio, a post he still holds.

Typical construction-related quote:

‘We have to show people that they have an interest in allowing development’

The bright young things: The writer

Fast-rising shadow housing minister Michael Gove was only elected last year, but is one of the better known Tory MPs, having been a Times columnist for many years. He is about to publish a book on the war on terror and will be hoping that it fares better than his 1995 effort, Michael Portillo: The Future of the Right.

Typical construction-related quote:

‘David and George have shown that they appreciate the industry’s concerns. They have talked about home information packs and real estate investment trusts’

The bright young things: The green guru

Zac Goldsmith is not a Tory MP, but is the party’s “green guru” and has been tipped as a possible Conservative candidate for London mayor. He seems to have rebelled against his tycoon father, the late Sir James Goldsmith, by promoting green issues through his editorship of The Ecologist.

Typical construction-related quote:

‘Our only immediately available energy comes from coal and nuclear – our gas and oil will soon be gone and we can not rely on supplies from abroad. We need urgently to recommission, not decommission, our nuclear power stations’

The bright young things: The surveyor

Chartered surveyor-turned-politician, Mark Prisk shadows Alun Michael with the business and enterprise brief. This means construction is in his wide-ranging portfolio, although he has yet to make an impact on the industry as he has recently focused on the debate on the future of small independent shops.

Typical construction-related quote:

‘Business in general is looking for certainty, clarity and simplicity. Sadly, the PFI is not certain, clear or simple because things keep being changed’

The bright young things: The leading lady

Shadow ODPM minister Caroline Spelman has been an MP since 1997, and is now one of the most prominent female Tories. Despite the obvious importance of development in her brief, Spelman has a slightly anti-housebuilding tone on her website when she states that she was “elected with a pledge to try and defend the green belt”.

Typical construction-related quote:

‘Home information packs are just another way for the Labour government to tax the uplift in property values and levy a new £100m-plus stealth tax on housing’