Margaret Beckett must draw on experience to help housebuilders weather the financial storm

Margaret Beckett’s surprise appointment as housing minister, at a time when the industry is facing its stiffest challenge since the war, is a heavy gamble on the part of Gordon Brown.

Bringing a new minister onto the portfolio at a time when the industry is rarely out of the spotlight means that Beckett will have to start having an active input into policy from the word go if the industry is not to suffer – after Northern Rock, we’ve seen what can happen if ministers dither on the issues that really matter.

Beckett will have a lot in her in-tray, with housebuilders pressing for further government assistance on land deals which will need to be resolved now if the eventual recovery in the sector is not to be delayed even further by a crippled sector.

But Beckett is no stranger to an industry in crisis – or to governmental controversy. She was strongly criticised for her role as secretary of state for DEFRA in the 2006 mismanagement of EU farm subsidiaries, but a spell watching from the sidelines may well have toughened her resolve to make an impact. And as a member of the original 1997 Labour Cabinet, there is no denying she has strong governmental experience.

The fact that it remains to be seen whether Baroness Shritti Vadera will continue as construction minister is probably more telling than any appointment to the post will be.

If, as the BBC has hinted, it turns out that she is replaced, it will be construction’s eighth minister in seven years, and chances are the next incumbent will be as short lived. But with a portfolio which includes a full gamete of business sectors, it is doubtful whether Vadera can realistically have built up any expertise in the area which will be too sorely missed.

She has hardly been an ever-present at industry events – and was nowhere to be seen at the regeneration or skills events at the recent Labour Party conference. The government’s proposal this week of a chief officer for construction amongst the civil service may address the problem – but is it simply an admission that construction will never hold the weight within ministerial appointments that the industry, with almost 10% of GDP, feels it deserves?