According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the UK construction industry consists of over 300,000 firms employing over two million people and it contributed 8.3% of the nation’s GVA (Gross Value Added) in 2008. Given its undoubted importance, who is in charge of this important part of our economy? Do we even need somebody at the helm?
A 2008 House of Commons report, Construction matters, estimated the construction sector’s GVA as double that produced by the energy, automotive and aerospace sectors combined. It also found that the built environment accounted for 70% of UK manufactured wealth. At the same time it painted a picture of an industry with “significant problems” that the government should help to resolve.
Is the construction minister at the helm?
The obvious candidate is Mark Prisk. In May 2010 he became the government’s construction minister. However, this fact is barely acknowledged on Mark Prisk’s own website and the BIS website describes him as the Minister of State for Business and Enterprise responsible for:
“…business sectors, including low carbon economy, low emission vehicles, electronics, cyber security, small business, enterprise and access to finance, competitiveness and economic growth, deregulation and better regulation, regional and local economic development (including Grants for Business Investment), business support, Olympic legacy, export licensing.”
It says nothing about construction.
The construction industry has consistently argued for a higher profile in government. The fact that a construction minister exists is encouraging, but the role appears to be of peripheral importance in the government structure and its appointees change too often (ten ministers since 2001).
Or is it the chief construction adviser?
Given the construction minister’s other responsibilities, one might look elsewhere to find out who is in control. Perhaps it is Paul Morrell, who has been the government’s chief construction adviser (CCA) since 2009. Among other things, the CCA chairs the Government Construction Board, which oversees the Government Construction Strategy and the Infrastructure Cost Implementation Plan.
While we have some idea of the CCA’s job description, it is difficult to assess his impact. This is partly because his public profile is limited. He has barely any presence on the BIS website and no separate website, contact address or telephone number (for him or his office). There is no reliable way of contacting him, confirming what he says in any of his speeches or finding out what he is doing. Unlike a government minister, he does not have to account to Parliament for his actions. This may be reasonable, as he is an independent adviser rather than an elected policy maker. However, this also makes it difficult to believe that he is, in any credible sense, in charge.
What is UK government policy?
To the extent that it can be summarised, current government construction policy seems to focus on setting a good example in its role as a client. As the Construction matters report put it:
“…the Government should remember that, as the industry’s largest single client, helping the sector to improve means that it and the taxpayer will directly benefit.”
In fact, Construction matters shied away from an all powerful minister in charge of construction across the board, which explains the limited role of the CCA and the relatively low profile of the construction minister. In many cases they simply co-ordinate or announce decisions involving a host of other government entities. This is somewhat inevitable because construction covers such a diverse range of issues, from EU law to tax. Even the Government Construction Board has 17 members from across government.
What are the alternatives?
We can explain the UK system, but is it working?
It is important to separate this question from party politics. The remits of the construction minister and CCA are largely unchanged from the previous government and the wider government stance towards construction seems similar across successive regimes. However, given the state of the construction industry and the fact that it was largely overlooked in the 2012 Budget, it is arguable that there is a need for change.
Other countries give construction a higher profile in government and one or two even have their own construction ministry; is that a better system? Alternatively, should the industry take more responsibility and accept that it is the master of its own fate, rather than looking for government assistance? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere between the two.