The Queen’s speech gave the impression that the government was bursting with ideas on building back better, but the hard work to deliver starts now, says Matthew Farrow.
This week’s Queen’s speech was pitched as ‘pared-down’. No open carriage, no regal robes and just a smattering of parliamentarians in the Lords to hear it. However, if the logistics of the ceremony were obviously shaped by Covid, it must be said that the content was too.
Last Thursday confirmed that voters were broadly satisfied with the government’s handling of the pandemic and it now deserves the opportunity to deliver on promises to ‘build back better’. This is why the parliamentary programme announced had to give the impression that the government was bursting at the seams with ideas on how to do this.
We had bills that covered the main bases of ‘building back better’ and ‘levelling up’ – legislation on lifelong learning, net zero, high speed rail and planning reform were all announced and will all be of interest to our industry.
The white paper that foreshadowed the new lifelong leaning bill made some sound points about getting employers more involved with technical skills training and providing financial support for lifelong learning. Changes to our sector including MMC, digitisation and the huge volume of net zero retrofitting ahead, mean we will need to draw from a wider pool of skills than previously, so this was a welcome announcement.
On procurement, given that the Transforming Public Procurement green paper moves us a further step down the ‘procuring for value’ road, it was good to see legislation to enact this in the speech. High Speed Rail was also given a mention, with a bill giving powers to construct the Crewe to Manchester leg of HS2, of course something we would welcome.
Meanwhile, ministers are pressing ahead with planning reforms. There has been talk of introducing a zoning system and design guides for local plans to speed up the approval process. While original proposals were rightly criticised as being too housing focused, The Times recently reported that ministers are considering an extra category of regeneration zone which might address this. This is an idea first suggested by ACE through the Construction Leadership Council.
The buildings’ safety bill, previously published in draft format, will now come to parliament in the next session. It contains far-reaching reforms to create a new regulatory framework for the safety of high-rise buildings, and a new statutory role of building safety manager.
Finally, delayed almost as long as the latest James Bond film, the environment bill should finally achieve royal assent by the end of the year. Anyone looking to advise clients on green issues will be glad to see its vital mix of long-term targets and environmental protections finally reach the statute book.
So, plenty to be going on with. However, two big challenges lie ahead for the government.
The first is that to genuinely succeed in ‘levelling up’ we need policies that weave together sustained investment in people and places over many years. For example, making housing more energy efficient requires the retraining, the planning system, the technical regulations and the funding all to coalesce in the right way at the right time. Individual initiatives and pieces of legislation are a start, but not enough. I have high hopes that the national infrastructure bank will add skills and capability here, not least as local authorities themselves have been ‘hollowed out’ by a decade of constrained funding, followed by the pandemic.
The second is the politics. Much of this agenda, certainly around planning reform and infrastructure, will be hard to deliver without the support and engagement of local government. Ministers have been falling out with their local supporters in parts of the south on housing targets, while looking to reward northern towns that have supported the Conservatives with most of the grants through initiatives like the towns fund. Furthermore, given the previously strained relationship between Whitehall and metro mayors like Andy Burnham, it will be hard to see them easily reaching consensus.
While the macro-economic picture may be better as we emerge from Covid, balancing the politics with the economics in all of this won’t get any easier.
Matthew Farrow is director of policy at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.