The coalition's neglect of construction cannot be ignored

Ministers need to champion construction through an active industrial strategy.

These days, it’s obligatory to mention the Olympics and particularly the dazzling spectacle of the opening ceremony.  In an evening of highlights, whether it was the Queen jumping out of a helicopter, the celebration of the NHS, or Arctic Monkeys playing a Beatles song, there was one important but often overlooked feature.  As Steve Redgrave entered the stadium with the Olympic torch, prior to handing it onto the next generation of young athletes, he was applauded by a contingent of hard hat-wearing construction workers, responsible for building the great Games complex on time, to budget and without a fatality during construction, which cannot be said of other Games.

Perhaps inevitably, in an evening of such jaw-dropping scenes, this important element was overlooked. But the government’s dire neglect of this vital sector can no longer be ignored. It is undermining one of the best means of pulling the country out of the recession made in Downing Street.

The construction sector is a unique barometer of the national economy.  Investment made now pumps money back into the local economy several times over, acting as an immediate and long term boost. As the Office for Budget Responsibility has noted, the multiplier effect for capital spending is higher than for spending in other areas.  Investment in construction also generates additional social and economic benefits, by boosting employment and increasing the number of apprentices. Cranes on the skyline are a good indicator of confidence in the future overall performance of the economy.  Manufacturers have told me that they need this confidence to be building or expanding factories; but the current lack of confidence means they are not taking the decisions to expand, and they want government on their side assisting their business to grow and take on new employees.

This is why recent announcements about the state of the construction sector are causes for such deep concern. They indicate that a jump out of the recession into growth is not coming soon, with  construction output falling by 5.2 per cent in the second quarter of the year, on top of the 4.9 per cent fall in the first quarter, and the Construction Products Association revising down its forecasts for construction output.  The key driver behind last week’s fall in GDP, the biggest since the height of the global financial crisis in 2009 , was the state of the construction sector. And the government’s decision to cut public expenditure and raise taxes too far and too fast is making matters worse. Confidence has been shattered: between now and 2014, £10bn of public sector construction activity is expected to disappear. Whilst the much-needed boost in construction demand provided by the Olympics has made a real difference, now completed, this is dropping out of the equation. Ministers’ assurances that private sector recovery would offset the sharp reduction in public sector work haven’t been matched by reality.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.  The government should realise that the construction sector is part of the solution to the problem, not the problem itself.  A government which was serious about an active industrial strategy, identifying the sectors which are important to the future performance of our economy, would value and nurture the construction sector.  Intelligent government, working together with private enterprise, would help to identify and realise the opportunities such as decarbonising our housing and industrial stock, enhancing the long-term efficiency of the economy by improving our infrastructure and building much needed homes; and bring additional benefits like the extra jobs that are created.

This neglect of this important sector by the government has far-reaching consequences.  When I was a housing minister in the last Labour government, I looked at the impact that the recession of the early 1990s had on construction and housebuilding rates for the decade after that. Skills and capacity were lost to the industry forever as former construction workers eventually found work elsewhere and didn’t come back and this had an impact on housebuilding rates for years to come.

If anything, the scars will be much deeper and more difficult to heal with this recession.  We have never seen a drop in output in construction of this magnitude in modern times. As a result of this fall, it will be difficult for the sector to bounce back without government taking action. There could be repercussions in terms of lost output and increased drag on economic growth for decades to come.

That is why the government needs to champion construction instead of neglecting it.  We need a sense of urgency, certainty and action. This means working with the industry to encourage investment now and in the long-term and to help unlock building opportunities; using measured incentives and tax cuts as a means of stimulating construction now. To this end, I’ve suggested that ministers should urgently convene a construction summit.

We’ve argued for bringing forward long-term investment projects, introducing a temporary cut in VAT to 5% on home improvements and a one year National Insurance tax break for all small firms taking on extra workers. We would repeat the bankers bonus tax, providing £1.2 billion to fund the construction of more than 25,000 new affordable homes across the country, generating 20,000 jobs and many more in the supply chain. It is not too late for the government to take this action now.

Politicians rightly talk about building a better future; it is hard to see how this is possible without a thriving construction sector.

The Olympic boost to construction will soon fade. Photograph: Getty Images.

Iain Wright is the shadow minister for competitiveness and enterprise.

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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories