A sunny Birmingham played host to a buoyant Conservative Party Conference this week.
As expected Brexit was the core theme for most of the event, signifying Theresa May’s commitment to deliver on the results of the referendum.
Brexit also featured heavily in the fringe programme, with many businesses, charities and think-tanks hosting public meetings with MPs to discuss the risks and opportunities that it poses. But taking a closer look at the conference and fringe agenda made it clear that Brexit was very swiftly followed in priority by housing and construction.
So while there was a lot of talk, was there anything for the construction industry to get excited about?
Business Secretary Greg Clark told delegates that the UK needed an industrial strategy that worked for businesses both big and small, making specific mentions of infrastructure, regeneration, skills and devolution. Separate to this, the CIOB and the RICS together held a well-attended fringe meeting to discuss what an industrial strategy should look like for the built environment.
Paul Nash, President of the CIOB, spoke at the event and noted: “Given that construction is one of the supporting pillars of the UK economy, it is crucial that it is at the heart of any strategy. It is essential for building the homes, schools, hospitals and workplaces the nation relies on. But in order to flourish, the industry needs to work with government on fixing a number of outstanding challenges: housing, productivity and skills to just name a few.”
Although Clark did not comment on the specifics in his speech, he announced that there will be an immediate review of employment practice to ensure they meet the needs of a modern economy. This ties in closely with the work that the CIOB have been doing on improving ethics in the supply chain and the policy team will monitor the proposals over the coming months.
The Chancellor Philip Hammond also announced at conference that he will abandon his predecessor George Osborne’s target of having a surplus by the end of this parliament and will instead focus on infrastructure projects to boost the economy. This is likely to hark back to the idea of rebalancing the economy, with regional investment and progress on the Northern Powerhouse – in truth, Osborne’s deficit targets slipped further and further away with each Budget, so Hammond’s tactic of borrowing at a time when interest levels are as low as they are should see a boost to construction.
Communities Secretary Sajid Javid called for a million new homes to be built by 2020. He stated in his speech that the 170,000 homes built in England last year was simply not enough to keep up with demand. He also commented on attitudes towards building new homes being a major barrier to progress and urged the public to look at the long term when considering the need for housing in the UK.
Javid announced that the Government would borrow £2bn to accelerate construction of tens of thousands of homes on brownfield sites. Additionally a £3bn Home Building Fund would provide loans to stimulate housebuilding projects. It’s unlikely that these two initiatives in isolation will bring us up to the level of housing this country needs and as always, the devil is in the detail. Gavin Barwell MP, the Housing Minister, provided a bit more detail on the Accelerated Construction scheme. Under the plans, large areas of public land will be broken up into smaller plots to encourage SME builders into the market, with the government no longer selling off large chunks of land to the highest bidder.
The Prime Minister’s closing speech had one very interesting line on government intervening in markets: “using the power of government to step in and repair the dysfunctional housing market.” This is of course a very un-Conservative policy and one to definitely keep an eye on. What this entails exactly is unclear, but further announcements will be made in a housing White Paper later in the year.
Following conference, it appears there are as many opportunities for construction as there are challenges. Clearly Brexit presents numerous risks, particularly in access to foreign labour, at least in the short to medium term. But with infrastructure and housing being identified as key to rebalancing the economy and, in Theresa May’s own words, “building a country that works for everyone”, it is clear that construction must be at the heart of this vision.
This blog first appeared in Construction Manager on 6 October 2016.