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.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide