In 1997, after 18 years of Tory rule, Tony Blair’s Labour government won power with gushing promises of integrated transport systems, world-class public services and an urban renaissance. Five years on, it’s time to make an assessment of how many it has delivered on.
Labour’s general election victory on 1 May 1997 might be a distant memory, but its consequences are very much with us today.

Tony Blair swept to power with the motto “It’s time for change” and the accompaniment of D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better. Labour has certainly delivered on the first count – this government has made changes galore. But did things really get better?

Building took a close look at eight of the government’s big ideas to see whether the promises have been fulfilled. In fact, the record varies from excellent (health and safety) to poor (integrated transport). The party came to power brimming with ideas, but after a brief honeymoon period, many people accused it of succumbing to “initiativitis”, a disease resembling Tourette’s syndrome that compels the subject to launch more dramatic initiatives than ministers, civil servants and industry can cope with.

“Delivery is a problem,” says Lord Rogers, who chaired the urban taskforce set up by John Prescott in 1998. He claims urban regeneration is too low in the government’s list of priorities, and argues that revitalising cities is a prerequisite for improving public services. “You can’t do any project as costly as education or healthcare unless the infrastructure’s there. Otherwise all the money spent will be partly wasted.”

We’re about one year into the 10-year transport plan and we clearly haven’t done one-tenth of the work

Bill Tallis, director, Major Contractors Group

Labour’s flagship policy as far as the voters are concerned is the quality mark, the vetting system intended to filter out incompetent builders. After just about staggering through two pilot projects, this was finally rolled out earlier this month.

However, the real test will be whether the government can renew Britain’s social and physical infrastructure. Despite Gordon Brown’s recent tax-raising budget, Major Contractors Group director Bill Tallis is doubtful that there will be enough money round to do it. He says: “We’re about one year into the 10-year transport plan and we clearly haven’t done one-tenth of the work. The contractors will do the work as soon as they get the orders, but they’re not going to get them if the money isn’t there.”

Liberal Democrat spokesman Don Foster goes further. He singles out housing as a main area of failure by the Labour government, saying that it has created few incentives for people to renovate empty homes. “The building of social housing has significantly declined under Labour – it’s a disappointing failure, and the planning green paper won’t do much to change that.”

1. Ride cowboy builders out of town


What’s the big idea?
Quality mark: a plan to root out cowboy builders by giving the seal of approval to contractors with high standards. When was it introduced and why?
In 1998, a working group at the DETR recommended creating a quality mark that would guarantee a firm had competent employees and sound practices – in other words, clients could trust them. So what happened?
In 1999, construction minister Nick Raynsford began the consultation process with a view to a launch in summer 2000. But cost overruns and delays put on hold until after the 2001 general election. Raynsford's successor, Brian Wilson, took up the baton and pressed ahead with pilot schemes in Birmingham and Somerset last year. Has it worked?
Not yet. A DTI report leaked to Building last month revealed the pilot schemes cost £2.5m and signed up just 148 contractors – a cost of almost £17,000 per firm. The report also said the overall scheme has no business plan and has not been costed. What do the experts think?
Barry Stephens, director of policy and planning at the National Federation of Builders, says: “The principles of the scheme are exactly right, but the government needs to level the playing field between reputable companies and rogue traders by reducing VAT.” What next?
The scheme will be rolled out across the country over the next four years, with £10m in government funding to ease its path.

2. Make construction sites safer


What’s the big idea?
A knocking together of heads in a bid to make building sites safer. When was it introduced and why?
When site deaths rose to an all-time high of more than two a week in 2000, deputy prime minister John Prescott decided enough was enough. He convened a top-level safety summit and ordered construction bosses to clean up their act. So what happened?
Prescott set tough targets: a 40% reduction in deaths and serious injuries by 2005, and a two-thirds reduction within a decade. Has it worked?
The number of construction deaths last year was in the low 80s, compared with 114 in 2000. What do the experts think?
George Brumwell, secretary general of UCATT, says: “They’ve driven the programme for change, they pulled the various strands of the industry together at the summit last year.” Suzannah Nichol, outgoing director of health and safety at the Construction Confederation, agrees that the government has improved, but adds: “It’s up to the industry to address its own health and safety record – the government can’t do it for them.” What next?
A new unit of the HSE devoted to construction is about to swing into action. Brumwell expects great things from the unit, which will be headed by chief construction inspector Kevin Myers.

3. Unlock private finance


What’s the big idea?
A way of using the PFI to rope the private sector into the government’s big capital projects. When was it introduced and why?
The PFI was originally a Tory initiative, but the idea of the public and private sectors working together suits Tony Blair’s political philosophy, and New Labour embraced it when they came to power in 1997. So what happened?
The government has approved PFI schemes with a combined value of £18bn over the past five years. The money has gone towards hospitals, schools, courts and anything else traditionally built with public money. Has it worked?
Some schemes have been a success, but there’s not much evidence that the PFI made the difference. The initiative has hit problems, including union opposition to plans to to privatise hospital staff and contractor’s gripes about the slow and costly tender process. What do the experts think?
Bill Tallis, director of the Major Contractors Group, said: “Every new project has faults, but PFI is much better than publicly funded projects.” What next?
The PFI is growing bigger every year. In last week’s budget, Gordon Brown unveiled plans for £25.5bn worth of PFIs and public–private partnerships over the next three years. That’s almost twice as much as Labour spent on PFIs during its entire first term in office. London mayor Ken Livingstone is adamantly opposed to the government’s PPP plan for the Tube, so there’s more controversy on the horizon.

4. Start an urban renaissance


What’s the big idea?
A scheme to transform our run-down cities. Seen as Labour’s bid to reverse Tory policies that favoured out-of-town projects and left Britain’s cities at the bottom of Europe’s league tables for deprivation. When was it introduced and why?BIn 1998, Prescott appointed Lord Rogers to head the urban taskforce. Rogers’ report the next year contained more than 100 proposals to bring about a British “urban renaissance” through high density, mixed-use, brownfield development. So what happened?
Prescott’s response, the urban white paper of November 2000, was long on aspirations but short on commitments, and Rogers was soon attacking the government for failing to implement his report. Has it worked?
A few cities, including Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester, have set up Rogers-style regeneration firms; elsewhere, particularly in London, the PPG3-induced freeze on greenfield development has led to renewed activity on urban sites. However, large-scale brownfield regeneration has failed to materialise and housing starts have plummeted. What do the experts think?
Lord Rogers says: “The urban taskforce … was the first major government initiative on regeneration for 30 years. Out of that some good things have come – CABE is one. But a whole lot remains to be done. Delivery is a problem.” What next?
The government seems to have run out of ideas, so don’t expect any new initiatives.

5. Sort out public transport


What’s the big idea?
A 1997 manifesto pledge to “develop an integrated transport policy to fight congestion and pollution”. When was it introduced and why?
A 10-year plan was unveiled in 2000 to entice people out of their cars. So what happened?
The government set up the Strategic Rail Authority to cope with the 20% increase in rail traffic in over its first four years in office, but its decision to put Railtrack into administration has been the low point of Blair’s second term – so far. On the plus side, 25,000 new buses are on the roads. But the promised road improvements –100 major bypasses, 360 miles of motorway widening – have yet to materialise. Has it worked?
Britain’s roads remain among the safest, yet the most congested in Europe. The rail system has been blighted by fatal crashes such as Hatfield and Paddington. Last year, the government conceded that transport was a weak point, but promised things would get better. What do the experts think?
Colin Wyatt, senior partner at cost consultant Gardiner & Theobald, said: “I don’t think anyone will see the 10-year plan through with any dedication.” However, WS Atkins chief executive Robin Southwell says transport minister John Spellar “is really developing partnerships”. What next?
In contrast to 1997, the 2001 manifesto’s transport goals were backed up with promises: £180bn for transport. Major plans include a fifth terminal at Heathrow and a new runway at a London airport.

6. Clean up the environment


What’s the big idea?
The government is promoting itself as a committed environmental manager and supporter of green technologies. When was it introduced and why?
The party’s 1997 manifesto stated: “We are committed to an energy policy designed to promote cleaner, more efficient energy use and production … we will develop renewable energy such as solar and wind energy, and combined heat and power.” So what happened?
Prescott committed the UK to reducing greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, and set national targets for the reduction of C02. Several initiatives have been introduced:

  • Revision of Part L of the Building Regulations
  • A domestic emissions trading scheme to promote carbon trading
  • The climate change levy – a tax on energy use for businesses
  • A cut in VAT on energy-saving materials last year
  • Capital allowances and tax breaks for green technologies
  • An aggregates tax to stimulate the use of recycled materials
  • A landfill tax.
What do the experts think?
Martin Hunt, manager of Construction Industry Environmental Forum, says: “The government has succeeded in putting the environment on the business agenda, but it has only had a limited impact.” What happens next?
The government is set to publish a white paper this autumn on energy policy and environmental issues, which could further strengthen the case for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

7. Rethinking construction


What’s the big idea?
To make construction more efficient When was it introduced and why?
Shortly after the 1997 election, John Prescott appointed Sir John Egan to identify ways of ending waste, inefficiency, accidents and defects. So what happened?
Egan’s 1998 Rethinking Construction was a seminal report, setting tough targets and introducing a new vocabulary of buzzwords, including “partnering”, “benchmarking” and “lean construction”. Has it worked?
Egan has had a profound effect on the industry, and most firms accept the tenets of his report. Putting it into practice has proven more difficult and there are signs the industry is polarising into an Egan-compatible premiership of large firms and the unreconstructed remainder. Egan himself has expressed frustration at slow progress, recently attacking the government for failing to set a good example. What do the experts think?
Egan himself said: “The government procures 40% of construction work and it is up to them to set an example. At the moment they are saying the right things and making the right noises, but not delivering. At the moment I would only give them five out of 10.” What next?
Egan’s follow up to his original report, Accelerating Change, came out this week. It calls on clients, and in particular the government, to take the lead in forcing the industry to adopt Eganic practices. The strategic forum, the industry’s link to government, will continue although Egan himself is stepping down as chairman this summer.

8. Build more and better public buildings


What’s the big idea?
Blair promised to rebuild the health and education systems after decades of underinvestment had left them on the point of collapse. When was it introduced and why?
In 2000, Blair pledged to put good design at the heart of Labour’s building programme with his Better Public Buildings campaign. So what happened?
Gordon Brown’s freeze on spending during Labour’s first years meant little was done, but Labour stood for re-election in 2001 on a pledge to deliver results. Voters gave them a second chance. Has it worked?
Progress has been slow – due to problems getting the PFI off the ground (see PFI box). Around 30 PFI schools have been completed so far, but there could be 250 by 2003. The “design champions” appointed within each department have been conspicuous by their lack of action. What do the experts think?
Richard Feilden of CABE says: “Capital spending takes a long time to come through, and the government seems to be focusing on getting things built rather than getting the right things built.” What next?
The Budget raised billions for the NHS, which should heat up the healthcare sector. Insiders now expect a shift towards small-scale projects such as surgeries and job centres as the election looms.