New construction minister wants to simplify procurement, clarify planning and expand markets

For Mark Prisk’s eight predecessors, the job of minister for construction (and many other industries besides) never got boring. That was largely because their average life expectancy in the post was 12 months, which gave them about enough time to say hello before making their excuses and departing.

The industry hopes that this time it will be different. For one thing, Prisk knows his stuff: he was a chartered surveyor for 18 years, which should give him a pretty good knowledge of the terrain. So, when it was announced in May that the 48-year-old Tory MP for Hertford and Stortford would become a minister in the Department for Business, Stephen Ratcliffe, director of the UK Contractors Group, said: “At last we have a minister who will know what he’s talking about. He’s probably the best briefed minister for construction on day one since Nick Raynsford in 1997.”

So, does that mean that he has cunning plans to guide the industry through the tough times ahead?

High expectations
Building spoke to Prisk on the second day of the Conservative party conference. His take on the show so far was “positive but cautious”. But does he think there has been enough focus on the construction industry given that there has been minimal mention of it in general conference sessions. Prisk avoids the question, referring instead to the issue in more general terms: “I am working across Whitehall, with people in the Treasury and with Francis Maude in the Cabinet Office because he and I share the view that construction has much to offer the UK.

“And although there’s been much discussion around the reduction of public expenditure, the reality is that the coalition government will be buying several billion pounds worth of construction goods and services over the next three or four years. It may be less than it has been in the past [but] the process is still going to be there. Though I think we need to improve the system.”

This leads him swiftly to his first major point about improving project procurement - an issue that has been top of his list of priorities since he first addressed the industry at Building’s terrace reception at the House of Commons in June. “We need to strip out a lot of waste and head towards new standards on prequalification.

“It’s an important area because prequalification is really wasteful. It adds about £250m in lost or additional costs to the industry. I also think we need to sort out some of the bureaucracy and the closed nature of procurement.

“We’ve started the process of publishing tenders and contracts online so people can see what is happening and what’s available out there. We want to strip out unnecessary procedures and open up the process to get more for less.”

Prisk’s advice
In terms of the immediate future for construction, and the possibility of more tough times ahead or a double dip recession, Prisk advises UK firms to cast their nets further afield. “I think overseas markets shouldn’t be ignored. This is a global business in which the UK has world-class players. I want to strengthen that global operation. I have just come back from China and it’s clear that they have a positive agenda for the development of new cities, new urban plans. It’s a tough market to crack but our design is highly valued by that market and they know we have real expertise.

“I also know that the Middle East is still a strong market, particularly less obvious places like Egypt in north Africa.

“Having said all of that, I’d say that in the UK the government will be continuing to procure services. Yes, we want more for less, but the idea that there won’t be a single thing built under the new government just doesn’t stack up. My job is to make sure the government is a positive and efficient client in the UK. And if construction firms want to win work, they can and they will.”

Despite the scrapping of Building Schools for the Future (BSF) he says schools will still need building, although he admits its cancellation was a blow for construction. “Of course it was. But as we all know, there were big problems with BSF. When I talk to industry people, they themselves recognise these fundamental flaws in the design and execution of the programme and I think many were not surprised at the change of approach. What Michael Gove and his team are doing is to look at how they can get best value with the new projects.”

Prisk’s mobile is ringing continuously now and he has to go but has some time for some final thoughts: he says the Olympics is a shining beacon of UK expertise, he would like to see more women at a senior level and he hopes that, although the industry should feel reassured by his background as a surveyor, they shouldn’t expect him to be an expert on absolutely everything. “I hope the fact I’ve worked in the sector will help instil confidence as I am an informed partner,” he says. “But some knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

“I’m a surveyor; I’m not an expert on every part of construction. The danger is there can be assumption that I am. I have also been out of practice. I’ve been in parliament since 2001 so although I know and understand the industry, I don’t pretend I am some sort of guru. That would be dangerous.”

Prisk on …

What most businesses want is certainty and clarity and the planning system needs to deliver that. We need clearer deadlines and speedier processes. We have disagreed with the idea of having an independent quango to make the final decision on strategic projects because we think it should be an accountable minister. But all the processes running up to that, clarity, certainty and the time limited approach, is something we endorse.

Health and safety
The key thing with regulations is that they need proportionality. And I think with health and safety we have got this out of proportion. Regulations are designed to assess the level of risk with a degree of common sense. Sometimes there is a possibility of risk but nobody measures that possibility so they try to rule out any eventuality and I think that can be damaging and would drive most businesses crazy. We want to strike a sensible balance. That needs to make sure there is a greater degree of common sense in the system.

Britain’s nuclear skills gap
There are some natural concerns with this but what I would say is that a significant proportion of work involved in developing a new generation of nuclear stations is already capable of being sourced within the UK. I’m very happy to talk to industry about identifying key gaps and skills. It’s going to be a part of the energy mix and we want to make sure it’s going to be self sustaining financially as we don’t want to bail out the nuclear industry.

Prisk in a minute

I never leave the house without My BlackBerry
The thing that makes me feel the most guilty about my carbon footprint is Nice holidays
My favourite song is At the moment I am enjoying Vampire Weekend’s music
My last meal would be My wife’s wild mushroom risotto
My favourite drink Depends on my mood. I’m a gin and tonic man … Bombay Sapphire preferably
I have never … been so delighted to be interviewed by a publication. I can’t get away with that can I? Oh God, I can feel my press office panicking from afar …