Nick Raynsford begins his new column by explaining how to influence ministers
After an enforced absence of several years while serving on both opposition and government front benches, it is a pleasure to be contributing once again to Building. Over the coming months I will try to give a perspective on the British construction industry and the context in which it works from the point of view of a critical friend: someone who has a real commitment to the success of the industry but who is not blind to some of the difficulties and challenges it faces.
Today however I would like to focus on a more short-term and immediate issue, which will, I guess, be preoccupying many in the industry – what does the appointment of the ministerial team in the DTI mean for construction. While the team is a new one, the department remains the same, unlike 2001. Indeed the brief flirtation with a change of name has mercifully been abandoned.
Putting aside that unfortunate false start, I believe that the construction industry can look forward with some optimism. Alan Johnson as secretary of state has considerable experience of working with both sides of industry – management and unions – and has demonstrated a no-nonsense approach to difficult issues in his previous ministerial posts.
Of course, the secretary of state’s remit is a broad one, so much of the day-to-day detail will fall to the minister of state, Alun Michael, who for many years has demonstrated a conscientious and committed approach to a number of prickly assignments. I suspect that he will warmly welcome the substitution of the construction industry for the Countryside Alliance as lobbyists.
Any minister taking on a brief will want to build up as quickly as possible a good understanding of the main issues facing the sector and develop strong links with the key players. Many lobbyists see this as a golden opportunity to deluge the minister with detailed briefings. Can I advise caution. The truth is that the civil service always gets to the minister first, and it generally doesn’t hold back on detailed briefings. A plethora of documents are likely to strain the patience of the most benign politician.
I will try to give a perspective from the point of view of a critical friend
What I always welcomed when taking on ministerial responsibilities were opportunities to meet a range of individuals and organisations to see at first hand the work they were doing – this is always more persuasive than a written brief – and to discuss face-to-face their concerns and perceptions. A few well-chosen invitations to visit sites, meet key players, and discuss problems and priorities rarely go amiss.
Ministers, like other MPs, tend to show a special interest in subjects they can relate to their own constituency. Alun Michael, as a long-serving Cardiff MP, has a natural interest in the construction works that have transformed his city.
It is also important to remember that ministers are part of a much wider team, going way beyond the DTI , whose decisions are likely to have more immediate impact on the industry’s prospects and order books – the Treasury in respect of economic management, the ODPM in respect of the communities plan and planning, and other departments’ procurement programmes all come to mind. Although the construction minister can often help to ease blockages or overcome misunderstandings through contact with his counterparts in other departments, he cannot be expected to sort out all the problems across the whole of government.
Nick Raynsford MP will be writing a monthly column for Building. He is a former construction minister and minister for local government