The UK political parties’ newfound appreciation for infrastructure presents huge opportunities for the construction sector, says ACE’s Hannah Vickers.
Billions have been pledged by the major parties on housing, transport and utilities as they attempt to outdo each other in proving to the voting public that they have left the shackles of austerity long behind.
I’m not sure I truly believe that the sums promised by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives will, ultimately, translate to immediate construction activity. This is especially true if the political outcome ensures that the parliamentary arithmetic remains difficult and Brexit continues to be well and truly unresolved. In this scenario, when will politicians and civil servants find the time to decide to spend money?
However, ambitious investment plans do highlight the need to invest and develop the industry, which is why ACE’s Future of Consultancy campaign partnering with government and learning from other industries is so important to achieving stretched targets.
All of this means that as an industry we should be delighted that all parties are backing substantial house building programmes, that there is unwavering support to developing the skills and capabilities of the workforce, that there is an understanding of the role better public transport can play to unlock growth, reduce regional inequalities and help the UK reach its net-zero targets.
We should also be pleased that infrastructure is finally seen for what it always has been - a key driver of economic growth. Whether blue, red or yellow (or is it orange?), infrastructure investment is now fully recognised as the building block of a strong economy and society. Indeed, for many of the parties it is a key part of the ‘Keynesian’ boost needed in order for the UK to grow in a post-Brexit world.
This newfound appreciation for infrastructure also presents huge opportunities for ACE and its members. Our own manifesto, Infrastructure for everyone, outlines what we want to see for housing, transport, utilities and water as well as on issues like skills, value, finance and net zero. We presented a suite of policies that could be picked up by any party looking for pragmatic and common-sense proposals that would make a real difference.
Our analysis of the parties’ promises is now available to ACE members on our website. Once logged in, they’ll be able to download our own policies benchmarked against the manifestos of the three major parties. Whilst it’s not the most scientific of exercises, it does allow me to draw some interesting conclusions.
Housing is one of the biggest issues for voters and, consequently, for the parties, which may explain why the figures shared are so preposterous. The Conservatives have promised a million homes over five years, while Labour have promised 100,000 council homes a year. All laudable aims but we’ve seen housing targets fail spectacularly before, and there are few reasons in the manifestos to suggest that we won’t face a similar outcome with these new targets in place. We need to set them a challenge to think differently on the issue.
On transport, Labour and the Lib Dems put more emphasis on public transport with fare freezes and free tickets promised. While all parties back HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, the Tories are the only major party to discuss roads openly (albeit repeating their £25bn pre-election plans). The Lib Dems join the Greens in formally opposing Heathrow’s expansion.
Labour’s plans for the country’s utilities are perhaps the most distinctive, with nationalisation of water and sewerage, energy generation and broadband key components of their economic policy. The broadband pledge has cut through and is extremely popular with voters. To my mind this also demonstrates how broadband connectivity is now viewed as an essential service, alongside electricity and gas.
The ACE manifesto means we can confidently engage with politicians no matter the outcome on 12 December, representing our industry’s interests on behalf of our members. Certainly, with the spring spending review just around the corner, there is an almost immediate opportunity for whoever is in power to show progress on their pre-election promises.
Hannah Vickers is chief executive of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.