So they’re back – Or are they? William Hague’s star may be in the ascendancy as Tony Blair’s begins to wane, but in the construction industry at least, the Tories are registering barely a flicker of interest.
This is partly because of a lack of important policy initiatives aimed specifically at the industry. Construction minister Nick Raynsford spent his last few years in opposition getting to grips with the brief and winning his spurs from contractors and consultants. In contrast, the Tories are gearing their courtship of construction to areas where they can make column inches in the broadsheets.
According to one industry lobbyist, the party is “surprisingly interested in construction, but really only the things that fit in with their agenda – brownfield, overregulation or stealth tax. I don’t think they are a party preparing for government. Only when they do will they produce the more detailed polices.”
Housing and planning polices are clearly dear to the heart of Archie Norman, the smooth and articulate Asda man who’s been brought in to show up John Prescott. Cynics say his recent proposals to shake up the planning system were aimed squarely at the voters of middle England. However, Norman’s view on the need to improve working conditions on site and support for the urban taskforce will no doubt win him industry fans.
It is the seemingly low profile of Robert Syms, the newly installed shadow construction minister, that many find puzzling. Says one industry lobbyist: “I used to get e-mail very regularly from John Redwood, when he was the DETR opposition spokesman, asking me to brief him on issues of the day. No one is giving John Prescott or Nick Raynsford a hard time.”
In fact, in a recent House of Commons debate on the state of the construction industry, the voice of opposition came from Tony Baldry, a former Tory construction minister, and for many, very much the unofficial shadow construction spokesman.
However, it is still early days for the Conservatives’ latest DETR line-up, and behind the scenes most construction groups are determined not to repeat the mistake of forging links with only the party in government; many are planning to make an appearance at the Conservative Party conference this autumn.
So, what might Norman and Syms say to win over the industry over? The key may be to show that they care about construction for its own sake. As the head of one industry body remarked: ”A robust debate about construction matters would be really useful. But we want construction to be debated on a practical and pragmatic basis – not treated as a political football.”
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