Andrew Millard
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Building and investing for the future

The New Statesman hosted a group of experts to discuss the challenges and opportunities associated with the UK construction sector.

Viewing the construction industry purely through the lens of the housing sector, a New Statesman fringe event concluded during the Conservative party conference last month, misses the point. A roundtable discussion that brought together parliamentarians, policymakers and industry professionals alike saw the group deliberate over issues concerning the United Kingdom’s industrial strategy, construction’s role socially, the skills gap in the context of Brexit, and even how buildings affect health-care spending.

John Penrose, the MP for Weston-super-Mare, got the ball rolling and his opening remarks addressed the scope of how we define “value” when reflecting on the building process, from concept right through to construction. Bemoaning the “difficulty of acquiring land at a sensible price”, he pointed out that “land speculation and appreciation” had supplanted the honest aims of building something new, fit for purpose and with potential.

He said: “We need to work out how we deal with the fact that value creation is not actually created any more, but is really just appreciation. We have a problem with land supply. If we can get the real value, in designing, building and creating liveable spaces, then that becomes the main game in town. I would suggest that part of the answer is in making use of the fact we are a remarkably open environment, compared to other parts of the world.” Alluding to too much red tape in the planning process, Penrose suggested, “If we can genuinely facilitate building up, not out, then we have an opportunity to add something like 40 to 60 per cent of more buildings on existing sites.”

Eddie Hughes, the MP for Walsall North, joked that it was uncharacteristic of Conservatives “to be so interventionist” but said that the government would be foolish not to see the benefits of expanding the construction industry’s brief beyond building alone, and into place-making. A balance between regeneration and new developments, he recommended, should form a pillar of any local economy. “Whether it’s housing or office space, a new building can boost an economy. It can attract new investment and employment to an area. If you make a place, with things for people to move to – jobs or facilities – then it’s more likely that they will.”

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union has undoubtedly thrown a curve ball across the country’s political and economic landscape. A major study into migration from the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) found that a third of UK firms employ migrant workers. That Brexit injects fresh impetus to plug the UK skills gap, then, was not lost on the roundtable. Hughes added, “The problem we’ve got is in answering: who’s going to do all this building? We’ve also got an ageing construction sector and face the problem, possibly, with the repatriation of some of those builders going back to plying their trades in their own countries. So we have a collective responsibility, as government and industry, to make the construction sector more attractive over here. They need to know that they can make a perfectly good living as a plumber, a bricklayer or plasterer and that their country needs them.”

While he agreed that Brexit might have renewed the focus on the need for better technical skills in the UK, the editor of Construction News, Tom Fitzpatrick, was keen to stress that this is an issue that has endured for many years now, largely owing to persisting problems with the industry’s perception in the wider public. “The skills crisis was being talked about in the 1990s. I guess you can say that Brexit has exacerbated the skills gap, but when people think about construction, they’re thinking about hard hats and muddy boots. The perception needs to shift away from the conditions you experience on site.”

Professor Charles Egbu, the dean of the School of Built Environment and Architecture at London South Bank University and vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), proposed that the best way to improve uptake in construction courses was to convey a better message about the industry’s potential to enact social or political change. And the CIOB, in partnership with several universities, has put together a growing body of research unearthing previously unrecognised links between the built environment and health, social inequality, education and employment rates.

Egbu said: “The CIOB argues that the value proposition lies in how construction supports wellbeing, and how through construction we might address issues of inequality and education. Moreover, the issue of technical skills competency also relates to social mobility and helping people to find work.” Concordantly, the CIOB has been working with other construction-related professional bodies to provide an information resource to help improve investment decisions in the industry. If policymakers recognise the difference the built environment can make, Egbu argued, they are more likely to develop it.

Dr Paul Chan, the editor of Construction Management and Economics, meanwhile, noted that there “needs to be a clearer distinction between further education and higher education”. He added that industry needs must be factored into the syllabi of courses in advance, to allow for a greater synergy with academia sooner in the pipeline. “The skills shortages often occur because there is a mismatch of what the industry is producing when it might need something else. The classic example is the flux of bricklayers back when the Channel Tunnel was being built.”

When it comes to the housing crisis, which has been a thorn in the side for successive governments, there is, as the economist Brian Green suggested, a bit of a misunderstanding regarding quantity over quality. That the UK needs to build more houses is an accepted reality, but what good are more houses if they are not built well? In the haste to build more houses, there can be a dereliction of duty to build more homes. Green observed that where someone lives has an immediate effect on their physical health. He said: “There is, as [Health Secretary] Jeremy Hunt has made clear, a correlation between damp homes and the cost that causes to the health service. What you get is a case of doctors prescribing new boilers!”

While the requirements for housing in both the public and private sectors have changed over the years, the Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership’s Michael Oglesby highlighted, approaches to architecture have not. While maintenance, management and allocation policies have played their part, design remains central to whether housing can be considered successful. More recently, developer-built city centre flats, aimed at an investment economy, have come under fire for their small size and limited storage facilities; while more suburban schemes are criticised for failing to deliver public space, sufficiently sized rooms or nearby infrastructure. Oglesby said: “I look around building sites today and very little has changed from 60 years ago. We are still building houses in the same way.”

Ultimately, as Mace’s director for the North and Scotland, Steve Gillingham, put it, the construction industry must not be dealt with in silos and “cross-party collaboration” is necessary. He summed up: “There is a need for confidence in long-term investment from government, to keep the construction industry well equipped. There must be a clear industrial strategy sooner rather than later, because the pipelines need to be full and the right levels of throughput must meet manufacturing’s demands.”

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”