Polling day is almost here. But which of the three main political parties would best represent the interests of construction?
In truth, none of them look particularly appealing. All have agreed on the need for cuts, without spelling out exactly where they will come.
And after a decade of record public infrastructure investment, construction is naturally fearful of where the axe may full.
Before examining how the manifestos of the main parties would affect construction, it's worth considering what the industry has lobbied for.
One of the defining issues for the next parliament, according to the pan-industry Construction Products Association, will be energy. This includes construction of new nuclear power stations and investment in renewables. But also, as chief executive Michael Ankers, points out, “ensuring that we do not waste the energy we produce”.
He adds: “We want the new government to commit to developing a detailed long term programme for improving the energy efficiency of the existing building stock.”
Other priorities identified by the Association were:
- developing a long-term plan for the UK's transport infrastructure;
- improving compliance with building regulations;
- ensuring sufficient finance is available for businesses, particularly SMEs;
- increasing the number of social homes being built to 50,000 each year by 2012;
- committing to the delivery of Crossrail; and
- undertaking an urgent review of the planning system.
The question is, how much of the industry's wish-list will be granted?
The Labour construction manifesto
Labour can take some credit for shifting public opinion round to accepting the need for new-build nuclear power. In its manifesto, the party sets a target of generating 40% from low-carbon sources by 2020 through construction of nuclear, wind and clean coal power generation capacity.
The party is keen to boost house-building, and announced a plan to work with housing associations to develop a “new form of affordable housing” that will “focus on enabling working people to rent an affordable home at below market rates while they build up an equity stake”.
Regeneration, a major beneficiary of the New Labour era, may be less fortunate. There are plans to make “savings on regeneration funding” and instead “focus on tackling worklessness”.
Healthcare, which has enjoyed heavy investment since 1997, could be another area to suffer. The Labour manifesto talks about “re-prioritising spending on health” away from construction of new facilities and “into front-line services”.
Construction's call for an infrastructure plan was partially addressed in Chancellor Alistair Darling's March budget, with the announcement of a National Infrastructure Framework.
However, major roads investment looks unlikely, with Labour pinning its colours to the 'managed motorway' approach to increasing capacity. It also promised no further airport runway construction outside of Heathrow.
The construction minister is Wrexham MP Ian Lucas. He says: “We have a lot of carbon change targets, but the industry needs to know the practical steps to be taken, and where responsibility lies. We need to talk more about the importance of development and the construction industry as a driver for the economy.”
The Conservative construction manifesto
The Tories have made sustainable energy a key theme of their 'rebranding' under David Cameron, but there is little to choose between them and Labour in terms of constructing new energy capacity.
Other green energy ideas the Tories put forward are a Green Investment Bank, to leverage private sector capital into green technology start-ups, and a plan to “give every home up to £6,500 worth of energy improvement measures”, paid for out of savings made on fuel bills over 25 years.
The party appears out of touch with industry thinking on transport, with a proposal to abolish Labour's National Infrastructure Framework, and replace it with private or hybrid Bills to promote major projects.
On housing, the Conservative manifesto repeats an earlier commitment to abolish centrally determined housing targets, while there is support for smaller businesses in proposals to “deliver 25% of government contracts through SMEs by cutting the administrative costs of bidding”.
The party's wider theme of decentralisation is best reflected, from a construction viewpoint, in its approach to planning. The Conservatives would introduce an ‘open source’ planning system and shift powers from central government to local authorities, as well as reforming “the complex and unwieldy” planning process.
The Conservative's shadow construction minister is Hertford & Stortford MP Mark Prisk. He says: “There are two practical steps that would make a real difference to construction firms, especially the small firms: we want to enable the sector to help us make the existing housing stock more energy efficient; and we want SMEs in the sector to win more work by making it easier for them to compete for pubic sector contracts.”
The Liberal Democrat construction manifesto
The Lib Dems would claim that Labour and the Tories have stolen their green clothes.
While many of its energy polices are very close to the other parties, they just about play the trump card with a proposed 10-year programme of home insulation. The scheme would offer a home energy improvement package of up to £10,000 per home, again paid for by savings from lower energy bills.
The Lib Dem manifesto presents several ideas to stimulate house-building. It proposes reforming public sector borrowing requirements to free councils to borrow money against their assets and build a new generation of council homes. It also announced measures to bring 250,000 empty homes back into use, where the home-owners would receive a grant or a cheap loan to renovate them.
The Lib Dems support Labour's policy on infrastructure investment, and would set up an Infrastructure Bank to direct private finance to essential projects such as rail and green energy.
One noticeable cut from existing Government spending plans concerns the prison building programme, which the Lib Dems would scrap in favour of rigorously enforced community sentences.
The Liberal Democrat construction spokeswoman is Solihull MP Lorely Burt. She says: “I know from talking to builders in my constituency just how bad things are for them at the moment. I will be doing all I can to help the UK construction industry survive, including supporting the 'Get Britain Building' campaign.”