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Blue plus green equals red tape

AGENDA

Whatever else Conservatives currently stand for - and that is far from clear - concern about the environment colours much of their present thinking as they desperately try to catch the popular mood. So, if they do manage to win power, contractors should brace themselves for a new wave of sustainability scrutiny, writes Domenic Donatantonio

THE CONSERVATIVES' wooing of the construction industry starts in earnest today after their jamboree in Bournemouth last week.

Construction minister-in-waiting Mark Prisk is meeting some of the leading industry bodies in London to hear their plans for the Olympics, which, if the bookies are to be trusted (at odds of 8/11), will be overseen by a Conservative Government.

The Construction Confederation, Construction Products Association and the Civil Engineering Contractors Association are all expected to attend as Mr Prisk, Shadow Minister for Small Business and Enterprise, starts his bid to become a public face for the industry.

Mr Prisk has been in the role since December and last week made his first pitch to be the self-styled shadow construction minister.

At a fringe meeting in Bournemouth, held by the Construction umbrella bodies, he told Construction News how he planned to appeal to the industry: 'By not getting involved in a spat in the letters pages of Construction News like the current Labour minister.'

With 23 years of experience as a chartered surveyor, Mr Prisk seems well-placed to talk on the industry.

This contrasts with the Government's merry-go-round of handling construction duties with Margaret Hodge as the third minister to hold the role of construction minister in the last year.

After graduating with a land management degree from Reading University in 1983, Mr Prisk worked at two chartered surveying firms before setting up his own company, MP Squared , back in 1991.

Speaking after the conference, Mr Prisk told Construction News that the Government hasn't given construction the attention that it deserves.

He also couldn't resist a swipe at the Government's ministerial revolving door policy for the industry.

Mr Prisk said: 'In recent years, the reshuff ling of ministers with little knowledge of what construction needs has been of little benefit to the industry.

'I want to bring some business common sense to the job and an instructive understanding of what the industry does.'

Mr Prisk sees the public sector's procurement policies as the biggest worry for the industry. He said: 'One of the main problems I've seen is the diversity of procurement methods used by the Government.

'I'll be reviewing in detail the National Audit Office studies on their policies.'

He also sees the Government's added burden of the Construction Industry tax Scheme, now set to start belatedly in April 2007, as a cause for major concern.

He said: 'With CIS, the uncertainty is the killer. The line from the Government on this has not been clear at all.'

Mr Prisk clearly has a grasp of the industry but, like the British public, construction UK wants to know what the Conservatives really have up their sleeves if they take the reins at the next election.

Political commentators agreed that it was hard to sniff out the policies on how they want to change the country, never mind the construction industry.

If David Cameron's conference-closing speech is any guide, he wants all immigrants to speak English, and backed the Government's introduction of a minimum wage. So lit tle change there, then.

He also wants a 'low-tax economy', but said 'piein-the-sky tax cuts don't bring substance'. Again, more head-scratching for Joe Public.

What we and the rest of the country want are numbers to crunch, but for now we will have to keep holding our breath. Like his leader, Mr Prisk was coy about giving real figures on how the Conservatives will tackle construction industry investment.

He said: 'As with tax, we cannot provide a detailed breakdown of what we will spend in the next three years, or even in six or seven years' time.'

If any message came over loud and clear from the conference, Conservative policy has changed from blue to green in its bid to secure votes. The much-criticised new tree logo is a testament to this.

Peter Ainsworth, Conservative spokesman for the environment, wants companies to be rated on how much carbon they emit.

Simon Storer, a spokesman for the Construction Products Association, agrees that rewarding sustainable investment can only be a good thing for the industry.

But, he warns that overburdening the UK could drive businesses to look abroad for cheaper options.

He said: 'The Conservatives need to be clear on bad behaviour. It makes sense to reward sustainability, but it must be put into context if there is a less sustainable and cheaper option abroad.'

Phil Morgan, head of external and public affairs for the Civil Engineering Contractors Association thinks that the industry will have to wait a while before the Conservatives start to deal in specifics. However, he believes that they are at least taking their policies in a new direction. He said: 'The themes emerging from the conference indicate that the next Conservative manifesto will put far greater emphasis on climate change, on the environment and on corporate responsibility.

'If this direction proves popular then it will probably be picked up by the other parties as we get closer to the election. This could mean that, whatever the outcome, contractors will have to adapt to a new political landscape - one in which their contribution to combating climate change, the contribution they make to the wider community and their record on environmental management all face greater scrutiny.'

The message is clear: with the Conservatives in power, firms should brace themselves for new levels of environmental red tape.

Mr Morgan added: 'We should not underestimate the potential this new direction may have for bringing in new levels of regulation that could be avoided if the indust ry emphasises its comm itment to these areas.'

Kurt Calder, spokesman for the Construction Confederation, said: 'I am not sure yet what Conservative policies will be, but we can say what we want them to be.

'Shadow ministers have been like sponges in soaking up the information we give them.'

Mr Calder thinks that the Conservatives' new passion for the environment could be applied successfully to the industry. He said: 'The Government should take more of a heavy hand on CSCS and health and safety and environmental management. Why not rank companies on their environmental success?'

However the Conservatives' plans have drawn derision in some quarters. Mr Storer, from the CPA, criticised the Conservatives' plan to give more control to local authorities.

He said: 'How will you have infrastructure if you always have local accountability? The danger is you'll never have a quarry, or a factory built this way.'

Ucatt spokesman Jim Kennedy gave a more direct view. He said: 'The fact that the Tories still have John Redwood and William Hague, a pair of right-wing has-beens, deciding policy, says it all. I was completely underwhelmed by the entire conference.'

Perhaps, you'll find more of a clue to David Cameron's policies at his new website. The Tory leader has set up 'WebCameron', which features You Tube-style videos, his on-line diary weblog, contributions from special guests, visitors' comments and Mr Cameron's replies.

Our advice would be to hold on for a bit, and wait for some printable spending figures, before you rush down to the bookies and put a tenner on Cameron to be living in Number 10 by 2010.

How times have changed

In the 18 years from 1979 to 1997, under the Conservative Government, the rate of inf lation averaged 6 per cent.

From 1997 to 2005, the inflation rate was 2.4 per cent.

In the 18 years from 1979 to 1997 interest rates averaged 10.4 per cent. In the last eight years interest rates have averaged 5.3 per cent.

When the Conservatives handed over power in 1997, the interest rate was 6 per cent. Today, the interest rate is 4.75 per cent.

In May 1997, the inf lation rate was 2.5 per cent. In August 2006, it was 2.5 per cent.

Average house prices have risen by 139 per cent since Labour came to power in 1997. In July 2006, the national average house cost just under £195,000, in comparison to just under £82,000 nine years ago.