After three years away from the front bench, the poster boy of the Thatcherite right is keen to demonstrate how a Tory government would make £35bn of efficiency savings – and gladden the hearts of the construction industry.
John Redwood is not impressed. He wanted the photographer to take his portrait in the vast atrium of Portcullis House – the recently built Westminster MPs’ offices – but a burly security man has said no. Instead, Redwood will have to be snapped in his rather cramped office, four storeys up. “Another intrusion,” he fumes, “I’ve written to the serjeant at arms about this. If you’ve got all the perimeter security around the building checking everyone as they come in, we don’t need these extra checks inside.”
For Redwood, the overbearing internal security is yet more needless government waste. And as the Conservative party’s deregulation spokesman, a role to which he was appointed last September after three years in the wilderness, government waste is Redwood’s pet hate.
It is also likely to be one of the bloodier battlegrounds of the general election: Labour is pledging to make £21.5bn of efficiency savings after a review by Sir Peter Gershon, the former chief executive of the Office of Government Commerce; the Tories are pledging an eye-bulging £35bn based on an alternative view from David James, the former Millennium Dome troubleshooter.
If this were carried out, says Redwood, the construction industry would enjoy less prescriptive Building Regulations, would benefit from extra money invested in roads and schools, a faster planning system and fewer design changes on PFI projects.
Redwood has a bland, even tone of voice and speaks in carefully constructed sentences, which makes it all the more surprising when he comes out with sweeping overstatements such as comparing his current role with the Thatcher revolution. “The analogy I’d make is with the 1980s’ Conservative government, which put through privatisation. We now need to do something similar in deregulation.”
Redwood is not one to play down his impact in public life. He effectively takes the credit for single-handedly “saving the pound” (see Q&A overleaf). He also carries the grand title of shadow secretary for deregulation, which would be fine if there was an equivalent Cabinet member for him to shadow. Redwood blanches at this: “I shadow the whole of government.” As important as that sounds, if Michael Howard bests Tony Blair in May, the role would be part of the Cabinet Office, which proved a graveyard posting for moribund ministers such as Mo Mowlam and Jack Cunningham.
Like the 1980s Conservative government, which put through privatisation, we need to do something similar in deregulation
In fairness, Redwood would have some real power. Borrowing from the Dutch model, regulatory budgets would be imposed on each department, and these would have to be cut every year, beginning in February or March 2006. The savings would not just be the cost of implementing the regulations; Redwood would also seek to quantify the reduction in costs imposed on businesses and families.
Regulations and planning
Redwood is quick to point out that these changes would be of huge benefit to the construction industry. He would strip out the regional level of the planning system, including unelected assemblies, and reduce the role of regional development agencies. There would be national guidance for major infrastructure projects and county or unitary plans for smaller schemes. “The builder would know who to go to, with nothing complicated in the middle,” he says. “The planning system is too cumbersome, there are too many people involved. Better to get a quick ‘no’ to a project than a long, drawn-out one.”
Redwood adds that the Tories would not relax planning restrictions in greenfield areas – unsurprising given that he has been campaigning against the construction of homes in his own constituency of Wokingham in Berkshire – but he is clearly interested in the issues facing housebuilders. His first job, in fact, was as a housebuilding and construction sector analyst at investment bank Robert Fleming. As a trainee in the 1970s he was sent to shadow one of the sector’s most respected analysts, David Taylor. Taylor recollects: “By the end, my knowledge had been pretty well sucked dry by the man.”
By the late 1980s Redwood was chairman of materials giant Norcros, and he seems to have carried some of what he learned there into his savings drive. He wants to reform the Building Regulations, with one example being thermo-efficiency standards. Rather than having separate targets for every part of a building, be it window or roof, he would just have one overall requirement. This would give more scope and flexibility to the architect and builder. He says: “Building Regulations are too prescriptive and fiddly – providing an exacting overall target would be a great improvement. We want a more energy-efficient world. Blue is the new green.”
Redwood’s biggest announcement so far has been the proposed scrapping of 168 quangos, a plan that he says would save £4.3bn. He argues that this money could be spent on roads or buildings to accommodate the 600,000 extra school places the party has says it will provide.
Building regulations are too prescriptive and fiddly. We want a more energy-efficient world. Blue is the new green
This sounds sensible enough, but some critics shake their heads at the suggestion that so many of these bodies should be outsourced to the private sector. One example is NHS Estates. It is due to be integrated into the Department of Health this year and will have its own directorate. The Tories have said they would privatise it. A senior NHS Estates source says: “The NHS is controlled by parliament, so stewardship of the estate should remain within government. It’s the largest construction programme within government and a core service of the NHS. Besides, 60% of its funding comes from outside government.”
Redwood’s defence is that outsourcing to the private sector would get better results: “When the government is so clearly useless, what successful business would want to take advice from it?”
The issue of efficiency savings is very much in vogue at the moment, a result of the fanfare that greeted the Gershon review in 2003. Many have feared that the efficiency savings he proposed would be too burdensome on government. The James Review goes further, making the sceptics even more dubious. “£35bn of savings sounds a lot,” concedes Redwood, “but taking a government budget of £500bn, this is not out of the perspective of the kind of savings British business has to make to remain relentlessly competitive.”
He adds that the Gershon review is not as comprehensive as James’. “I don’t believe that any government could deliver all he said – for example, he is a bit optimistic on gains made by computerisation. And it is too general. James is more specific. At one point we had a team of 60 consultants working on it. I also don’t believe that the government is committed to Gershon, because the main point was to reduce back-office staff and there is still a continuous rise.”
It’s time for the photographer to take Redwood’s picture. The poster boy of the right insists that he tidy up his desk first. After all, shadow ministers must not just be efficient, they must be seen to be so.
What do the Tories think about the PFI?
We have no wish to change the system on competitive open tendering on larger schemes – not that European rules would allow us to. But within that message we must draw attention to the need for an intelligent client who knows his own mind. The government has bought so badly. A lot of PFI schemes have been made more expensive by the government’s changing design and specification. We would give more discretion to local authorities.
How will you help housebuilders?
We are committed to more home ownership. It’s easier for housebuilders to operate in the private sector than through intermediate public sector housing associations.
Do you regret standing against John Major in 1995?
My only regret is that we didn’t succeed in changing things sufficiently to avoid the major defeat I knew we were heading for. There was one major advance, in that the challenge got a promise [from Major] for a referendum on the euro. Mr Blair immediately matched that promise, and as a result we have kept the pound.
How did it feel to be in the political wilderness after 2001?
I am very committed to parliament. It was my choice not to join Iain Duncan Smith’s shadow cabinet. I wanted the opportunity to pore over a range of ideas, so I enjoyed the freedom of not being committed to one area. And I wrote a lot.