A continued focus on investment in the built environment, better connectivity and faster broadband and a commitment to skills and training made for a Queen’s speech that much of the construction industry could get behind, though questions remain about the detail around delivery and devolution.
The government’s legislative agenda, unveiled in the speech, focused on infrastructure investment, adult education and boosting economic growth. Proposals will be taken forward to transform connectivity by rail and bus with a High-Speed Rail bill and 5G mobile coverage and gigabit-capable broadband are also set to be extended over the course of this parliament.
Legislation is also being introduced to support a ‘lifetime skills guarantee’ to enable people to access high-quality education and training throughout their lives and eight new Freeports will be created to act as hubs for trade and to regenerate communities as the government looks to ‘bake-in’ levelling up as a key plank of its strategy. There will also be new legislation to simplify the procurement process in the public sector.
Hannah Vickers, chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, said: “Levelling up is a powerful and much used political slogan, but in order for it to have substance, we need policies that bring together sustained investment in people and places over many years. This latest Queen’s speech is a useful start towards that and we look forward to seeing more details in the coming weeks and months.”
“Investments in infrastructure is are, of course, a key part of this, and the bill enabling the second leg of HS2 is welcome. However, if we are to truly unleash regional potential and boost our economic recovery, it has to also be about investments in our people. This is why the focus on lifetime skills and retraining is welcome, especially in the context of a changing construction sector which has the potential to create opportunity across the country as we navigate a path to recovery.”
Vickers welcomed the proposals around planning reform but said that the government needed to go further to encourage more social infrastructure and the zero-carbon agenda. “It is welcome to see the government pressing ahead with planning reform, although this needs to be about much more than simply meeting housing targets and pouring concrete. We need to ensure that, no matter the final detail, any new planning framework facilitates the major investments in the range of social and economic infrastructure our communities need, whilst helping us realise society’s net zero ambitions, if we are to truly build back better post-pandemic across the UK.”
There was also a welcome for proposals to simplify public procurement, but Vickers was keen to stress that this shouldn’t be all about cost – social value was crucial in providing real benefit for communities. “I’m looking forward to exploring the detail of the procurement bill, recognising that simplifying the current system makes sense, but only if this embeds a shift away from lowest cost towards best value for society,” she said.
Contractors gave a warm welcome to the speech. Director of external affairs for the Civil Engineering Contractors Association Marie-Claude Hemming said: “The government’s legislative agenda shows a clear commitment to boosting the UK’s recovery from Covid-19 through investing in infrastructure and skills. We welcome steps to simplify procurement in the public sector and look forward to working with all stakeholders to reform this system to the ultimate benefit of the UK taxpayer. As part of this, we hope the government will consider the findings of Professor David Mosey’s independent review of frameworks.”
Turner & Townsend UK managing director Patricia Moore also welcomed the proposals to overhaul procurement. “Alongside the focus on skills, procurement is a vital piece of the puzzle if the construction industry is going to step up to deliver the government’s flagship agendas of levelling up, net zero transition and building back better. Transforming the delivery of major programmes across the country rests on taking a bolder approach to procurement, and there’s no better time to grasp this potential,” she said.
The commitment to levelling up was welcomed by Tim Wood, acting chief executive at Transport for the North. “The Queen’s speech opened with a statement on levelling up and the need to transform connectivity by rail and bus as part of the agenda,” he said. “That this is high on the list of priorities is welcome news and must now be met with action as we focus on rebalancing our economy and improving transport links.
“We now need to see commitment to these aims in the upcoming Integrated Rail Plan, including backing the full HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail networks. Alongside a sustained pipeline of investment in our roads and active travel provision, this will support the cross-cutting themes of economic recovery and growth out of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as increasing skills and opportunities for the north’s communities,” said Wood.
Regional think tank, IPPR North called for the government to speed up devolution, saying that there could be no levelling up without it. Erica Roscoe, senior research fellow at IPPR North, said: “For years now, regions like the north have been waiting for the government to bring forward their promised white paper on devolution in England. We were told to expect it at the last state opening of parliament, but it was never delivered, and now it seems to have been abandoned altogether.
“Promises to ‘level up’ the country are welcome, but after years of rhetoric and piecemeal announcements of unambitious, centralised, competitive pots of funding, people in regions like the north are more than ready to see real action. At the heart of any attempt to level up must be a meaningful commitment to delivering a good life for all, through devolution of power and resources so that places can take control of their futures, for themselves. As we saw from last week’s elections, people value the difference that their local leaders can make, and devolution can have a positive impact on communities. Every moment that the government stalls on devolution, it is actively levelling down.”