Comment: Big construction gets it badly wrong

Special pleading…

The bosses of 12 of the UK’s biggest construction contractors and consulting engineers have produced what they call their Blueprint for Growth, setting out what they see as the infrastructure and construction sector priorities ahead of the UK general election. In effect, it is their wish-list for the next government. (See below for the signatories.)

Number one on their list is “Depoliticise Infrastructure”. We have been here before. The idea is that if we take decision making powers away from politicians and give them to unelected ‘experts’ who apparently have a much better grasp of the national interest, we will remove the back and forth arguments about the merits of building power stations, roads, railway lines and other national infrastructure.

Blueprint for Growth argues that recommendations made by the (unelected) National Infrastructure Commission should not longer be considered merely expert advice but become statutory: “empower the National Infrastructure Commission to lead the implementation of the strategy with a 10–20-year horizon, underpinned by an act of Parliament,” the construction companies demand.

I’m all for abolishing National Highways but the client function should return to the Department for Transport, under the aegis of a cabinet minister, not to the independent National Infrastructure Commission.

There is not much daylight on the National Infrastructure Commission. It is not an organisation that looms large in popular consciousness.  Off the top of my head, I can name only one of its members – Sir John Armitt, its chair. He built his career at Laing before later running Costain – two of the companies behind this Blueprint. He is a good man. I can think of no one better to chair that commission. But do we really want to saddle even him with the sort of executive power for determining on and then delivering the nation’s entire infrastructure, like some kind of British Mussolini?

And why stop at infrastructure? If it is the fault of politics that we are not building enough power stations, roads and railway lines quickly enough, then surely the same applies to hospitals and schools. Why should we trust politicians to make decisions on health or education either? Because we live in a liberal democracy, that’s why. Infrastructure is intrinsically political, just like health, education, pensions, welfare and all the other essential building blocks of our society.

Politics is the process of resolving conflict and making decisions by debate, with each voice given equal opportunity to be heard and with recourse to the safety net of the rule of law. It may be frustrating as hell for contractors lined up to build a tunnel under the Stonehenge World Heritage Site that the start date keeps getting postponed by legal challenges, or that ministers stall firing the starting gun on projects for fear of electoral impact.

But an alternative regime is too outrageous to contemplate – although not too outrageous for construction lobbyists to push for, apparently. 

I can well imagine that cancellation of the important bits of HS2 was doubtless the last straw for many of this document’s signatories. But we have to let elected governments govern. If we ring fence infrastructure funding so tightly and keep it inviolate as recommended, where should the axe fall when public spending does have to be squeezed to protect economic stability? Anywhere but construction is the clear message here (regardless of how big a white elephant the project has subsequently been shown to have become).

Even if parliament did vote to give special protection to a 20-year infrastructure plan, it would not necessarily have the impact that these construction bosses believe. A new government with a different agenda – a greener hue perhaps – would simply exercise its democratric right to enact new legislation. Pfff, there goes the infrastructure plan.

Although big construction would like to keep politicians out of decision-making on big contentious projects, it looks to them for help when it comes to their inability to attract and retain workers. We have heard often enough before that they want special treatment to bring in more immigrant labour because UK construction has shown itself utterly incapable of attracting and retaining the workforce it needs from within these shores. “Simplifying bureaucratic processes for bringing in short-term workers would ensure the timely delivery of infrastructure schemes,” the Blueprint says.

I’m not certain that ‘ensure’ is quite the mot juste here. Would more migrant labour really have ensured the timely delivery of Crossrail, Edinburgh tram, Hinkley Point C etc?

However, we are familiar with construction’s desire to access someone else’s ready-made labour pool rather than put its own house in order. What is surprising to learn, however, is not that we do not have an indigenous workforce but that we do not to have even have the talent to create one, it seems. Apparently we now need to import an army of training personnel to whip our youth into shape.  “Implementing a responsive immigration system is crucial for meeting infrastructure ambitions,” the Blueprint says. “This includes bringing in experts from other countries to train the UK workforce on specific skills needed for key projects.”

Blueprint for Growth also wants law and democracy subjugated to the greater good of efficiency: “Simplify the process for automatically refusing judicial reviews where a high-quality examination has already occurred during the development consent order consultation and scrutiny, and establishing set timescales for resolving judicial reviews and their redetermination processes to avoid delays.”

Perhaps some readers will nod their heads at this. But consider the slippery slope: we throw out checks and balances at our peril.  The rule of law is a safety net that benefits us all.

What if the planning has been skewed? As Chris Todd, founder and director of Transport Action Network, says: “Judicial review is already very challenging for those who wish to pursue it. It is not something people do lightly. If we want more effective infrastructure delivery, we need a national transport strategy that sets out a clear direction of travel. That would be the best way of reducing judicial review while sending clear signals to investors and contractors as to the way forward. Unfortunately, the latest National Networks National Policy Statement does not help the situation.”

Other Blueprint for Growth recommendations are similarly troublesome: ban local authorities from putting local people first by making them give equal weight to national interest in decision-making, says the construction manifesto. Yet the whole point of local democracy is local representation. Democracy may be annoyingly inefficient, but it is still the best option out there. Streamlining democracy means weakening democracy.

They also want more self-certification. Of course they do…

What the authors fail to recognise, it seems, is that politics is not a toxin; it is a vitamin. We need elected politicians to synthesise the competing, and ever-changing, wills of the people. And we need them to be well informed to make wise decisions. Unfortunately, this document is flawed in its wisdom.  It is special pleading of the most naked kind.

 The signatories of Blueprint for Growth are:

  • Richard Robinson, president UK & Ireland, AtkinsRéalis
  • Leo Quinn, group chief executive, Balfour Beatty
  • John Wilkinson, chief operating officer, Bam UK & Ireland
  • Alex Vaughan, chief executive, Costain
  • Bill Hocking, chief executive, Galliford Try
  • Ray O’Rourke, chief executive, Laing O’Rourke
  • Mark Reynolds, chairman and chief executive, Mace
  • John Morgan, chief executive, Morgan Sindall
  • James Harris, group executive chair, Mott Macdonald
  • Scott Wardrop, chief executive, Eurovia and Vinci
  • Richard Offord, chief executive, VolkerWessels UK
  • Mark Naysmith, chief executive, WSP UK & EMEA

[About the author of this comment article: Phil Bishop is a freelance journalist and online editor of The Construction Index. He has been reporting on, and writing about, construction industry politics since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.]

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