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Construction: no concrete announcements

The reaction from the construction industry to chancellor George Osborne's "unashamedly pro-business" budget has been one long collective "so what?"

As an announcement it was seriously overshadowed by the Prime Minister's speech on infrastructure on Monday - which signalled a partial road privatisation and a consultation on new airports in the South East. So by the time Osborne stood up at 12.30 yesterday, there were few rabbits left in the hat, with just one genuinely new spending announcement - of a mere £130m on an important rail scheme in Manchester. Small beer for Budget day.

In general, the construction industry - think high-profile Thatcher supporters such as Lawrie Barratt, or the McAlpine clan - is a conservative bunch and supports the rhetoric of Osborne's industrial strategy: to focus what little remaining public spending there is on large-scale infrastructure projects.

It says something for how conservative they are that they have broadly backed steep cuts in capital spending - such as to Labour's £50bn school building programme - despite it leading to predictions of a 5 per cent recession for the construction industry in 2012.

But even naturally blue company directors were left scratching their heads to find anything of value in yesterday's announcement. The problem is, the rhetoric around rebuilding the nation's infrastructure is at the moment just that - rhetoric. Where were the concrete announcements needed to fill the gap between the public funding being cut, and the private sector funds expected to come in?

In the autumn the Chancellor said he would get pension funds to stump up £20bn to pay for new roads and low carbon energy projects. Yesterday he revealed the actual figure raised was just £2bn. Remember that many of the cuts to public funding of construction are still to come.

Last autumn he said that private finance initiative, which, despite its many problems, is the most proven method of getting private capital to pay for public goods, was under fundamental review and effectively closed as a procurement route to the public sector. Yesterday's Budget gave no idea of the way forward there, meaning many schemes remain on hold.

On a whole range of areas - from the Green Investment Bank, to planning reform and local government borrowing powers to fund building - Osborne ducked key decisions. So if builders were hoping this budget would turn rhetoric in to rock-solid practicalities, they were disappointed.

And it was not without nasty surprises too - look in the numbers and it turns out government capital spending will fall £1.1bn faster than predicted in October for each of the next two years. The Treasury documents also say central government may restrict local authority borrowing to build new homes, despite having just agreed "localist" deals with councils who are planning construction programmes on the back of them.

The final verdict? - We're still waiting.

Joey Gardiner is assistant editor at Building magazine

Joey Gardiner is assistant editor at Building magazine

Photo: Getty Images/Richard Stonehouse
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Here's how Jeremy Corbyn can win back the Midlands

The Midlands is where elections are decided - and where Jeremy Corbyn can win. 

The Midlands: this “formless” place is where much of Labour’s fate lies. The party witnessed some of its most disappointing 2015 results here. In those early, depressing hours of 8 May, Nuneaton was the result that rang the death knell of Labour’s election chances. Burton, Cannock Chase, Halesowen & Rowley Regis, Redditch and Telford weren’t far behind. To win here Labour need to build a grassroots movement that engages swing voters.

Luckily, this is also a place with which Labour’s new leader has a natural affinity. The bellwether seat of Nuneaton is where Jeremy Corbyn chose to hold his last regional rally of the leadership contest; just a couple of counties over you’ll find the home Corbyn moved to in Shropshire when he was seven. He cut his political teeth round the corner in marginal constituency The Wrekin; it was in this key seat he did his first stint of campaigning. Flanked by a deputy leader, Tom Watson, who represents Labour stronghold West Bromwich East, Corbyn has his eye on the Midlands.

As MP for Islington North since 1983, Labour’s leader has earned London-centric credentials that have long since overshadowed his upbringing. But Corbynism isn’t a phenomenon confined to the capital. The enthusiasm that spilled out of Corbyn’s summer leadership rallies across the country has continued into the autumn months; Labour’s membership is now over 370,000. It’s fast catching up with 1997 figures, which are the highest in the party’s recent history.

London is the biggest beneficiary of this new movement - with 20 per cent of Labour’s members and 19 per cent of new members who signed up the week before conference coming from the capital. But Corbynism is flourishing elsewhere. 11 per cent of all Labour party members now reside in the southeast. In that same pre-conference week 14 per cent of new members came from this mostly Tory blue area of the country. And since last year, membership in the southwest increased by 124 per cent. Not all, but a good deal of this, is down to Corbyn’s brand of anti-austerity politics.

A dramatic rise in membership, with a decent regional spread, is nothing to be sneered at; people are what you need to create an election-winning grassroots movement. But, as May proved, having more members than your opposition doesn’t guarantee victory. Corbyn has spoken to many who’d lost faith in the political system but more people need to be won over to his cause.  

This is clear in the Midlands, where the party’s challenges are big. Labour’s membership is swelling here too, but to a lesser degree than elsewhere. 32 per cent of party members now and 13 per cent of those who joined up in seven days preceding conference hail from this part of the country.

But not all potential Labour voters will become card-carrying members. Corbyn needs to speak to swing voters. These people have no party colours and over the summer they had mixed views on Corbynism. In Nuneaton, Newsnight found a former Labour turned Ukip voter who thought Corbyn would take Labour “backwards” and put the economy at risk. But a fellow Ukip voter said he saw Corbyn as “fresh blood”.

These are enduring splits countrywide. Voters in key London marginal Croydon Central gave a mixed verdict on Corbyn’s conference speech. They thought he was genuine but were worried about his economic credibility. While they have significant doubts, swing voters are still figuring out who Labour’s new leader is.

This is where the grassroots movement comes into play. Part of the challenge is to get out there and explain to these people exactly who the party is, what it’s going to offer them and how it’s going to empower them to make change. 

Labour have nascent plans to make this reality in the Midlands. Tom Watson advocated bringing back to life this former industrial heartland by making it a base for manufacturing once again – hopefully based on modern skills and technologies.  He’s also said the leadership team will make regular regional visits to key seats. Watson’s words chime with plans floated by shadow minister Jon Trickett: to engage people with citizens’ assemblies where they have a say over Labour politics.

But meetings alone don’t make grassroots movements. Alongside the economy, regional identity is a decisive issue in this – and other – area(s) of the country. With the influx in money brought in by new members, Labour should harness peoples’ desire for belonging, get into communities and fill the gaps the Government are leaving empty. While they’re doing this, they could spread the word of a proper plan for devolution, harking back to the days of municipal socialism, so people know they’ll have power over their own communities under Labour.

This has to start now, and there’s no reason why the Midlands can’t act as a model. Labour can engage with swing voters by getting down to a community level and start showing – and not just saying –  how the party can make a difference. 

Maya Goodfellow is a freelance journalist.