The transition to low carbon, further procurement reform and boosting confidence in the industry are construction minister Mark Prisk’s priorities for the year ahead, he has revealed in an exclusive interview with Construction News.
Speaking to CN exactly one year after taking up his ministerial role, Mr Prisk reflected on the past 12 months and the outlook for the year ahead.
He said it is vital the coalition acts on the recommendations of the Innovation and Growth Team’s Low Carbon Construction report, which was published in November last year. “Over the next year I want to make sure that we really deliver on the programme for low carbon.
“[Chief construction adviser and IGT chair] Paul Morrell and the industry have set out a good agenda and we now need to start turning that into deliverable outcomes.”
The report contains 65 recommendations for government and industry, and places a strong emphasis on the need for regulation.
Mr Prisk agreed “there is a role for regulation” in reducing the industry’s carbon footprint, but argued changes to procurement and incentives would also play a vital role.
“It’s also about being a good client, setting good clear goals and direction, so the industry can come up with the answers,” he said. “I am a great believer in seeing us use our procurement approach to deliver change.”
Mr Prisk said reductions in corporation tax and red tape, help for investment into business and further reform of government procurement practices would help bring a sense of confidence back into the market.
The government “can’t magic that up but it can create the right stable conditions for growth”, he said.
Asked about his achievements as minister, Mr Prisk highlighted the relationship between government and industry, and welcomed contractors’ willingness to help shape reforms.
He pointed to the creation of the National Infrastructure Plan as a crucial development, while acknowledging contractors’ calls for more detail on the future pipeline of public sector work and to increase forward visibility beyond the two years announced.
He said: “I understand that anxiety because there is a pressure on the workload and people are looking for additional contracts. But let’s get this in place and get it bedded down, and then there will be a sense of continuity and direction.”
Contractors have also been concerned about the future of private finance in public sector construction after months of PFI-bashing.
But Mr Prisk said the private sector needed to understand that the “costs to the taxpayer of PFI and PPP have got out of control…and we are not prepared to tolerate that”.
He said the Chancellor George Osborne is looking at the future of project finance and there is “absolutely” a role for the private sector.
Asked if he supported the centralised procurement advocated by Sebastian James in his review of school building, Mr Prisk said he was a “keen advocate” of standardisation. “The James Review points the way I think.”
The coalition government
One year on, the view I formed in the first months is much the same. Inevitably there will be different voices and perspectives, but in many ways that has been a constructive discussion.
That is why, for example, we have been progressing on things like zero-carbon homes. That is something where you have had a Conservative input and a Liberal Democrat input and that has strengthened the outcome.
It is clear in its ambition, but it’s not lacking that pragmatic view as to what the industry needs.
I have enjoyed working with Vince [Cable] and Ed Davey and other Lib Dem colleagues. Yes, we have a difference of view but I have that with Conservative colleagues when we are discussing policy within government and any board of directors has the same thing. You want that dynamic discussion but once you have decided on where you are going, you get on with it.
I try to listen to all the different elements that make up the overall picture and try to get out into industry and see what is happening on the ground.
Obviously we have the ONS statistics. The CPA has brought forward some very good evidence about the fact that the last quarter was healthier for the sector than perhaps the official statistics suggest - and now the ONS is looking to establish a review of those figures.
Things are pretty tough in different parts of construction but it’s a slightly mixed picture at the moment so I think but we will have to wait and see - if I have learnt anything in the past 12 months it’s don’t speculate on figures. But my own view is that we have got a lot more work that we need and want to do in the industry to help bring back growth across the sector.
Health and safety reform
There has been a very sensible programme which the last government was involved in, which is about making sure we have safe sites. And that’s absolutely right. What you can do is make sure those perfectly sensible intentions don’t get clouded by needless red tape or processes that actually don’t add anything to safety on site.
So what Chris [Grayling] is looking at is taking on the review that Lord Young undertook. We don’t want to in any way reduce the safety of individuals but we do want to look the processes and the reporting structures and the procedures which very often add cost but don’t actually make people safer. Getting that distinction right is important. No one wants to engage in a process that consciously makes things less safe, but what you can do is strike a better balance.
There is an issue with firms actually being able to take on apprentices and one of the things we can do is make better use of group training associations.
They are able to co-ordinate the paperwork involved in taking on an apprentice so that the two or three-person business that would quite like one doesn’t have to deal with that side of it and can simply focus on the transfer of skills to the young person. That co-ordination is important and John Hayes is looking at how to develop it.