Graham Watts, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council, joins the calls for a dedicated minister of state

It is 20 years since Michael Heseltine declared that the construction industry was so fragmented that he needed to “hire the Royal Albert Hall” to speak to it.

Heseltine’s criticism was given from a position of authority. As a cabinet minister presiding over a department that amalgamated diverse responsibilities for the built environment, he was the sharp point of government in its relationship with construction.

Seemingly, “things could only get better” when New Labour extended this “joined-up” focus by creating the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Perhaps blinded by the freshness of it all, we overlooked the danger signs. In place of a secretary of state and two supporting ministers sharing aspects of this huge industry’s portfolio, sponsorship of construction was shrink-wrapped into a small part of a junior minister’s brief. Fortunately, the first minister, Nick Raynsford, had such lengthy experience with the industry that the cracks in this diminished interface were papered over.

Today, there are 13 departments with responsibility for aspects of policy related to the built environment. The relationship with industry is compromised because government separates the planning of a construction project from its design, which is then quarantined from its manufacture. Even different design elements (that is, building services engineering and architecture) interface with different parts of government. Housing is separated from other forms of building, which in turn are kept apart from other aspects of construction, such as civil engineering. Sir John Egan should have noted in Rethinking Construction that the government could have helped to accelerate change if it demonstrated its own recognition of the processes.

This generic failure to join up policy responsibilities for the built environment has been exacerbated because construction sponsorship within government has been significantly eroded since 1997. Sponsorship of the construction industry within government is now supplied by just one of the five divisions that existed a decade ago: it is about an eighth of what it once was. There are still some valiant and hard-working individuals rooting for the industry in Whitehall but their abilities are now effectively buried under the dead weight of the DTI.

In place of a secretary of state and two supporting ministers sharing aspects of this huge industry’s portfolio, sponsorship of construction became a small part of a junior minister’s brief

It is crucial to the smooth delivery of policy for sponsorship of the associated elements of designing, constructing and maintaining the built environment to be consolidated within a single department, led by a sufficiently high-ranking official able to punch at an appropriately heavy weight within the civil service – and with a minister of state dedicated to construction.

The new department or directorate should, at the very least, bring together the sponsorship responsibilities for planning, architecture and building design, building and building services, construction, housing, surveying, structural and civil engineering, sustainable communities, sustainable construction and innovation and research in the built environment. It should also link up with agencies responsible for the policy in climate change, energy efficiency and carbon management.

The need for harmonisation is just as strong in terms of the regulatory role and in developing government’s corporate expertise as a client. To enhance the quality of our built environment and achieve longer-term value for our public buildings, government must become both a more expert client and a more effective regulator of the construction industry.

The pendulum has now swung fully since the time of Michael Heseltine’s criticism. The industry’s problem is that now it is us who need to hire the Royal Albert Hall in order to reach all the scattered parts of government that affect our industry! After the election, there will be a once-in-five-year chance to put this right.

Construction industry: Election Battleground no3