One of the biggest myths in British Society, let alone in Politics, is that the construction industry is a thing of the past. It isn’t. If Britain is to recover from the global financial crisis, then the construction industry is vital to that recovery.
There is one truth however; the Coalition is doing everything in their power to drive a wedge between the public and the private sector. It is undeniable. From the language that they use to the actions they are taking. This is disastrous for the construction industry where a harmonious relationship between the two is imperative. There appears to be blissful ignorance that if you cut one, the other one bleeds and construction sector is haemorrhaging and in need of an urgent transfusion.
That is why I applied for a Parliamentary debate on the issue. I may have limited competition in my claim to be the “only Bricky in Parliament,” because of my career as a bricklayer in Merseyside, throughout the UK and in the Falklands. To some, this might not be as impressive as holding a PhD, but to me and many others, it gives me a practical understanding of the sector, from the bottom up.
And that is why I told the Business, Innovation and Skills Minister, Mark Prisk that urgent action is needed from this government, to save the industry from the brink of no return.
In the thirteen years of a Labour government, we restored confidence to the construction industry, that had previously been battered by the Thatcher government. We built eight new prisons, more hospitals and brought forward major capital infrastructure projects. We embarked on the Building Schools for the Future programme which was a lifeline for construction and boosted jobs in the industry. Since taking office, the government have scrapped 719 of the BSF projects and further public sector construction which has left confidence in the relationship between government and construction at an all time low.
Project Merlin is good in principle but so far, bad in practice. Bank lending continues to be the source of all evil for SME’s and construction firms. Until we find a way to bridge the gap between the site manager and the bank manager, we will never get the bank’s lending in the way that we need.
In recent weeks and months, much of the business, innovation and skills debate has been about ways to improve the opportunities for a high-skilled work force in a low-skill economy. One of the previous Labour Government’s greatest achievements was to give those who wanted to do so the chance to go on to further education through the introduction of the education maintenance allowance and the university loans system. As a result, Britain now has the most talented generation in recent history. Job opportunities in science and technology, graphic design and public relations, which were the preserve of the well connected, are now at the fingertips of this more industrious generation of Britons. Real progress has been made in diversifying the skills sets offered to young people across the country, but in areas such as my constituency of Liverpool Walton, traditional industries such as construction also have a real part to play.
And it can play a big part in the near future, of that I am sure. The government must be fully aware that every £1 spent on construction leads to an increase in GDP of nearly £3 and stimulates growth elsewhere in the economy worth nearly £2. What that means is if you buy a house, you are then going to spend money on a bed, kitchen, a sofa and so forth, which increases economic spend. Therefore the cuts to construction make no fiscal sense whatsoever.
A recent Financial Times report, claims that construction orders have fallen by 40 percent in the past twelve months and this is even before the government’s programme of the deepest and most unfair cuts in recent history, have even fully taken effect. This is not due to too much or the wrong kind of snow, this is to do with confidence and a total lack of it.
We have no credible skills strategy from the government and this is creating uncertainty in the sector. At present, with construction contracts slashed and work at a premium, firms are not able to employ staff for longer than six, twelve or eighteen month placements, and therefore are negating their responsibility to train their workforce. I don’t blame them. They have neither the time nor resource. This is why the government has to act to bridge the gap. The construction industry, even with its 3.3 per cent drop in the last economic quarter (the sharpest fall since the 2008 downturn), still needs 30,000 apprentices each year. The government have not outlined a targeted approach to how these apprenticeships will manifest themselves in construction.
The government Minister, Mr Prisk, recently said, “An efficient, effective and profitable construction industry is at the heart of any growing economy.” However, like on the NHS, like on the armed forces and like on pensions; the substance doesn’t match the spin.
This government’s record on construction is disastrous. On 17 June 2010 the Government cancelled millions of pounds worth of infrastructure projects including the North Tees and Hartlepool hospital, the A14 road widening, the Kent Thameside strategic transport programme, the Leeds Holt Park well-being centre, and the Birmingham magistrates court. On 4 July 2010, the Government announced major cuts of £220 million to the budget of the Department for Communities and Local Government. It was claimed that that was because of a black hole in the funding for the Homes and Communities Agency, and that it would result in many of the newly announced social and council housing building projects being cancelled. We later proved that there was not a black hole in the funding, so why have the cancelled projects not been reinstated?
Skills, apprentices, contracts, relationships and a broader appreciation for what construction can do for growth in the economy is all part of the rebuilding process which is needed, and needed fast. To do nothing but cross our fingers and hope for the best is not good enough and our industry deserves better than that.