It’s always been said that construction does well under Labour, but when Tony Blair came to power in 1997 nobody would have dreamed just how well.
Since then there has been virtually uninterrupted growth in output, house prices and public spending. But although the industry has certainly enjoyed a boom courtesy of messrs Blair and Brown, will posterity judge the money to have been well spent? And how has Blair shaped the built environment and the industry that produces it? The short answer is that the policies were pretty good, but the implementation often ropey. The longer answer is given over the next 56 pages. You’ll have your views, but here in a nutshell is our take on the highs and lows.
1 Investment in public services. This only got going in the second term, but since then we have seen an unprecendented wave of hospital building and the biggest school renewal programme since the Victorians. The PFI was made to work, but it did so at times in a tortuous and wasteful way, and was too often the enemy of good design. Perhaps only now have we got the checks and balances right.
2 Regeneration. Our cities have been transformed, and urban living is seen as desirable. New homes are built on brownfield land in mixed-use developments rather than greenfield estates.
3 Design. The setting up of Cabe now seems a masterstroke. Housebuilders are employing signature architects and every city wants an iconic tower. The public sector has some catching up to do.
4 Making the industry a better place to work. Prescott put health and safety on the map, the Construction Act reduced the number of disputes and the Egan report has led everyone to take a more collaborative approach.
5 The climate change agenda. The need for buildings to tackle climate change has hit the agenda over the past couple of years, and Blair has been an effective advocate of this, here and abroad.
6 Winning the Olympics. We still may rue the day, but the plans for 2012 really will bring much need improvement to great swaths of derelict land in the east of London.
1 Housing supply and planning. The two are inherently linked, although it took the Treasury’s Barker review before the government saw it. House prices have rocketed – the average price of a home in 1997 was £69,500 compared with £192,500 in 2007 – but Blair has failed to crank up supply. And it was only during the second term that funding for social housing was put on the table. Tackling the backlog of council housing repairs has certainly been a great achievement, but it’s up to Brown to get more built.
2 Training. One might not level this at Blair, but while the industry has boomed, training has certainly not kept pace with demand. Indeed, despite over a decade of growth the industry’s attitude to training has never gone beyond the boom-bust cycle psychology. All those hospitals and schools have increasingly been built by migrant labour.
3 Transport. The fact that Crossrail still does not have funding just about sums up the government’s transport policy.
4 A voice for the industry. The ability of the industry to guide government policy seems to have declined in direct proportion to the importance of its role in delivering public services. Perhaps that’s why building regulation has become such a complete knotted mess.
Denise Chevin, editor
The Blair issue
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The Blair years