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Politics: Westminster dresses for battle

For politicians, 2014 was the year when the impulse to pick up a hard hat was overwhelming. Construction sites were in fashion, and housing and major infrastructure were its biggest trends.

Much of this is because a general election is looming next year, of course, so politicians are keen to be seen promoting long-term investments in our nation’s future. Projects under construction piqued their interest, with senior politicians from all the main political parties visiting sites throughout the year.

Government backing

The government got the industry talking on social media with its Building Britain campaign, encouraging people to tweet pictures of themselves and their teams on sites around the country. You couldn’t move for site selfies.

David Cameron riffed on this theme, talking about the measures his government was putting in place to “help the construction industry build Britain’s future”. The PM spoke to Construction News in May during a visit to a Balfour Beatty site and insisted that his party’s long-term plan on infrastructure was working.

He was also quick to promote the benefits of High Speed 2 – the mega-project that turned from an ‘if’ into a ‘when’ during 2014. Further support for infrastructure was demonstrated by the bold announcement of High Speed 3 in October, before HS2 had even begun construction. Cameron and George Osborne were growing increasingly confident and turned to sites to do much hand-waving and ‘shovel-ready’ eulogising.

Mr Osborne promised yet more investment, as almost 100 priority roads schemes were set out in the new Roads Investment Strategy. Alongside this, the government committed to spending on energy and housing schemes.

It probably wasn’t a coincidence that a general election was coming in just six months.

Boris in the spotlight

The other prominent Conservative politician to hog his share of the headlines was the mayor of London.

Boris Johnson kept backing his controversial ‘Boris Island’ airport scheme in the Thames Estuary, even after it was rejected by Howard Davies’ commission, and he had announced that he would be standing as an MP in Uxbridge, where huge numbers of jobs depend on Heathrow.

Mr Johnson beat the drum for London throughout the year, unveiling a £1.3tn infrastructure plan for the capital in June and pushing ahead on Crossrail 2, revealing a preferred route for the scheme in October.

He was also not shy when it came to visiting sites for the first Crossrail scheme, associating himself with the project’s successful delivery to date (the chancellor and prime minister also took credit), and his populist streak shone through as he backed skateboarders in their dispute over the retention of a skatepark in the planned redevelopment of the Southbank.

He capped his year off by brandishing a brick at the Conservative Party Conference, telling the brick that it would not be alone as 1bn more would be needed to build London’s new homes – and he insisted they would not be sold to “oligarchs from the planet Zog”.

The Scottish question

The leader of the opposition wasn’t immune to construction’s charms either. Ed Miliband promised that he also had a plan for infrastructure and that he was “determined” to meet his party’s target of building 200,000 new homes a year by 2020 – following his call in 2013 for housing developers to “use it or lose it” on land they owned.

He also spoke to Construction News to warn of the impact that leaving the EU would have on industry, saying that it threatened infrastructure investment. The more immediate threat to the UK in 2014, though, came from Scotland’s near exit.

The question of Scottish independence loomed over the country, and construction, for most of 2014. Construction companies were concerned, with a majority feeling that independence would be bad for business.

Of course, the Scots voted no, the Queen purred down the phone to the PM, and the UK remained intact – although increased devolution, not just for Scotland but for other regions of the UK too, is now on the cards for 2015.

With the election just months away, the industry will hope that construction remains in vogue for the long term and that infrastructure is not just being used for short-term political gain.

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