Son of milkman and grandson of Derbyshire miners now industry’s main contact in government
Lee Rowley, the son of a milkman from Derbyshire, has been appointed as the sixth construction minister in two and a half years.
Today the government confirmed that the MP for North East Derbyshire would replace Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who was appointed as secretary of state for international trade in last week’s reshuffle.
First elected in Theresa May’s 2017 snap election, Rowley swiped the seat from Labour for the first time since 1935. A local earthquake at the time, his election can be seen in hindsight as a harbinger of the wholesale crumbling of ‘red wall’ Labour MPs in the December 2019 election which swept Boris Johnson to victory with an 80-seat majority.
Rowley’s status as an early member of the Conservative’s new influx of northern MPs in formerly Labour-held seats is underlined by his working class background. Born and raised in Chesterfield, both his grandfathers were miners at pits in the area, including the Westhorpe and Shirebrook collieries – both of which closed under Conservative governments in the 1980s and 1990s. Interviewed in the Yorkshire Post in March, he said the period was “very difficult”. But he added: “The important thing now is how we move forward with that.”
He said Conservative party values of ambition, aspiration, “a hand up, not a handout”, is what got him interested in politics.
The first in his family to go to university, he studied modern history at Oxford, following it up with a masters in the same subject at Manchester. His first job after university was in a digital design agency working with the Department for Education. He then moved into financial services and spent a decade working in companies such as Santander and Barclays as a change manager.
In his alumni profile for St Mary’s High School in Chesterfield, where he was head boy, Rowley said that he “always wanted to find a way to combine my interest in thinking strategically and long-term with getting to grips with the detail and change management was just the thing for me – whether it be implementing a new IT system, a new product or a different way to do things”.
Politics – and construction – seems to have featured in Rowley’s life long before he was elected as an MP.
He spent eight years as a councillor for the Maida Vale ward on Westminster city council, being elected as a cabinet member for transport in 2010. In this role he contributed to a paper on housing for centre-right think tank the Centre for Social Justice alongside the group’s founder, Iain Duncan Smith. The paper suggested wholesale reforms to the housing system, freeing it from “overbearing and confused central control, so that it can respond to shifting local needs”.
Rowley has been involved in campaigns to stop fracking proposals in North East Derbyshire and to protect the area from substandard housebuilding. He also helped to win regeneration and improvement funds from the government for Chesterfield suburbs Clay Cross and Staveley.
As an MP, Rowley helped lead investigations into Crossrail as part of his role on the Public Accounts Committee, and he was appointed as one of two Parliamentary Private Secretaries to the Treasury. As part of last week’s reshuffle, he was also appointed as one of six of the six junior lords of the treasury alongside his construction role. In the past week, he has been in the news following a quadruple murder in his constituency. Rowley described the deaths, which included three children, as “utterley heartbreaking”, and said he laid flowers on the road in Killamarsh where the murders took place before lighting a candle in a local church.
His predecessor as minister for construction, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, served in the brief for just over nine months. Trevelyan’s predecessor, now-business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, held the role for just a month. The sector has seen nine ministers over the past five years.
In a move which might concern some in the industry, Rowley, as a parliamentary under secretary of state, has a more junior role than Trevelyan, who was a minister of state while responsible for construction.
Given construction is at the centre of the government’s post-covid agenda, Rowley now has a task on his hands to prove that he has the heft to give the industry the prominence given to it by the government, and the longevity to outlast his many predecessors.