Picture yourself on the Tory back benches, two years into your Westminster career, when you’re suddenly appointed to a junior role on the shadow environment team. The transport brief is ideal for perfecting your soundbites for the Daily Mail, but then there’s the construction portfolio, which everyone knows is a bit B-list. Still, an interview with Building must offer some chance to win friends and influence people?
Perhaps. But perhaps not if you admit, as Robert Syms does, that “construction’s not the most exciting subject in the world”.
Presumably, tact is not the most potent weapon in Syms’ political armoury. Maybe the lugubrious-looking MP for Poole is passionate about construction, but so cynical about media manipulation that he has decided to confuse the enemy by surrendering without a fight. But when he gives his job description as “junior transport spokesman – and I do a bit of local government and construction”, he does a convincing impression of a man who would rather be elsewhere.
In fact, trying to get a policy or even a soundbite out of him isn’t easy. Typically for a politician, he fights shy of committing himself to any ideas that might come back to haunt him. Less typically, he takes consensus politics to new heights. “There probably is a broader consensus on construction than on other issues. It’s much less of a battleground than something like transport.”
Views from the bottom
Syms, 43, was appointed to the role of shadow construction spokesman by virtue of more than 20 years’ experience of working in the family contracting business, C Syms & Sons, based near Chippenham in Wiltshire. The firm has been in business for 120 years, and now specialises in small works for schools, hospitals and local businesses. Turnover is “under £2m”, and the number of staff fluctuates between 20 and 30.
I’m junior transport spokesman – and I do a bit of local government and construction
He regards the business, which he has left in the hands of his father but still visits regularly, as his principal textbook for studying industry-wide issues. “I haven’t had to spend a lot of time talking to the industry and getting to know the problems it has,” he says. His other research source is the visitors who come to his constituency surgery, both local contractors with grievances and disgruntled householders bushwhacked by the cowboys.
This source material gives a grassroots flavour to his analysis of the industry’s most pressing issues. Top of the list is skills shortages, where Syms laments the death of the traditional craftsmen. “We’re getting to a time when highly skilled people are retiring and new entrants are not replacing those people. The Construction Industry Training Board is manfully doing its best, but we still have a problem.”
He identifies late payment and non-payment as another issue. As he says, “If you sell a fridge, you can repossess it. If you build an extension, you’re stuck.” And then there’s a nod in the direction of the industry’s image problem, caused by “a lot of shoddy characters do irreparable damage to a lot of people”. However, on issues affecting the wider industry – such as the Egan agenda, initiative-fatigue or the private finance initiative – there are no views to be squeezed out of him.
Even the government’s anti-cowboy quality mark, a national issue and an opportunity for political point-scoring if ever there was one, draws little fire from Syms. “I wish it well, although the pilot schemes have not exactly taken off. If it doesn’t work, we’ll have to try something else. But trying to get the quality mark to work is key. It needs to be broadened and has to be more general.”
Taxes and faxes
One area where he does feel confident enough to nail his colours to the mast – although he is still not hammering very hard – is the harmonisation of VAT on new build and repair and maintenance. "VAT is one issue the government could tackle. If you are serious about the cowboy issue, you really ought to look at it. I do think the VAT regime tends to encourage people to do fiddles.”
When I was a parliamentary candidate, the Builders Federation never wrote …
When one south coast contractor expresses the wish that “we want him to be heard taking an interest in the construction industry”, it is difficult to imagine Syms delivering. But lack of political experience cannot be the reason, since he has “always had a great interest in politics” and served 12 years on Wiltshire County Council. He fought Walsall for the Tories in 1992, and was rewarded with a safe seat in 1997. And he has his place in the network – his new wife Fiona, with whom he has a one-month-old daughter – was PA to former cabinet minister Gillian Shephard.
Perhaps he feels that making a noise would be vulgar. He is evidently an old-school conservative, with the values of an older generation. In his comment that “many craftsmen could work without supervision – I don’t believe that’s the case today” there is audible despair over new-fangled ways.
Despite the opportunity to use construction as a profile-raising political stepping stone, Syms does not think it is up to him to make friends in the industry, and has no plans to visit the trade bodies. In his view, the responsibility is on the industry’s lobbying machine to fax, brief and issue invitations.
“When I was a parliamentary candidate, the Builders Federation [sic] never wrote. The National Farmers Union sent a fax every Monday with farmer’s issues. If politicians realised its importance, they’d listen more.”
One area where he feels the industry let itself down with inadequate lobbying of MPs and ministers is the ill-fated Construction Industry Scheme, the replacement for 714s. “I think
this was a real cock-up by government, which could have been avoided if politicians thought it was worth listening to what the industry was saying. There’s been a dialogue of the deaf between the Inland Revenue and the industry.”
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