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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution