With less than a fortnight to go until polling stations across the UK open their doors, Construction News talks to six candidates with industry backgrounds about what they see as the sector’s critical issues.
Alexander Burnett – Conservative – West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine
It is more or less accepted wisdom that the Conservatives’ fragile toehold in Scotland is unlikely to strengthen in May.
The party has just a single MP north of the border, but Alexander Burnett thinks he can change that.
Mr Burnett only got involved in politics 12 months ago when he saw the surge in nationalist support ahead of last September’s independence referendum.
As a multiple business owner, Mr Burnett was horrified by the prospect of an independent Scotland.
“I thought it was important that people with experience in business got involved. That is still the major threat in Scotland”
“I was particularly concerned with what it would do to the economy in Scotland,” he says.
“I’ve got a large workforce of more than 200 people and I was concerned with what would happen to their jobs.
“I thought it was important that people with experience in business got involved. That is still the major threat in Scotland.”
Mr Burnett is an owner and non-executive director of the Bancon Group, which includes development, construction and a housebuilding division, as well as national timber-frame specialist Deeside Timberframe.
He is passionate about sustainable housing development and has built his own low-energy home as a prototype to see “what problems and issues might arise” as his companies worked towards the UK government’s 2016 zero-carbon standards.
He also thinks the Conservatives offer the best package to environmentally conscious business owners.
“The turnaround time in applications is just ludicrous. The Scottish Government doesn’t listen to industry enough”
“Business has moved on in terms of being more socially and environmentally responsible.
“All these things now appear on balance sheets and I feel there’s a better chance of getting those kinds of things through by being within a party in power.”
In Scotland, one of Mr Burnett’s major concerns is the planning framework, with the National Policy Planning Framework and its presumption in favour of development not operating as it does in England and Wales.
“We have issues on the restrictions to getting houses delivered. The way the system is operating is the biggest drag on building.
“The turnaround time in applications is just ludicrous. The Scottish Government doesn’t listen to industry enough.”
Even more locally, he’d like to see the north-east of Scotland get a fairer proportion of transport investment from the Scottish Government.
“All the money is being spent in the central belt and we’re getting nowhere near our share.
“The Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route is a major project that is now starting but is probably five or 10 years late.”
Steve Rotheram – Labour – Liverpool Walton
As a former apprentice bricklayer who started his own company at the age of 22, training is one of the issues at the forefront of Steve Rotheram’s mind as he campaigns to hold his Liverpool Walton seat.
Mr Rotheram says Labour wants to “ensure there are proper apprenticeships”, which he distinguishes from the “rebranded workplace training” he believes has boosted government statistics and promised higher apprenticeships to all 18-year-olds with the right qualifications.
Labour leader Ed Miliband has already laid out a plan to require firms winning government contracts to take on apprentices.
But Mr Rotheram says a Labour government would also look at ways of making sure apprenticeships work more effectively.
“Everyone is making similar claims but we’ve got a long-term strategic plan for what we’re going to do for construction”
He says the party is looking at expanding the use of a “carousel” system, whereby apprentices move between smaller firms to follow the demand for skills.
Guaranteeing continuity of work for apprentices at SMEs is difficult, he adds, suggesting that the CITB could “step in to allow an individual to finish their apprenticeship”.
“It would not only complete the required training but give them experience of another company as well.
“The idea is to get as many people as we can [into apprenticeships].”
Labour’s apprenticeship plans, Mr Rotheram says, are a product of the party “working backwards” from its aspiration to increase investment in building, particularly in housing, where the party has set an annual target of 200,000 new homes.
“Everyone is making similar claims but we’re thinking backwards because we’ve got a long-term strategic plan in regard to what we’re going to do for construction.
“An east-west link would create jobs at this end of the country rather than starting everything in London”
“If we have an expansion in construction we need to ensure apprentices are trained so we can exploit those opportunities.”
Mr Rotheram says other parties’ ambitious housebuilding claims don’t stack up, including Ukip’s.
“The irony of what Nigel Farage is saying is that he wants these houses built, but without a plan the only way to build them is by attracting additional immigrant labour into the country.”
On immigration, Mr Rotheram accepts that it is one of “the major concerns you hear on building sites” but he insists it’s “not about immigrants coming in, it’s about being undercut on jobs; we would not allow that to continue”.
One subject on which Mr Rotheram veers from the party line is High Speed 2, which he says should be less of a priority than a trans-Pennine rail link.
“An east-west link would create jobs at this end of the country rather than starting everything in London,” he says.
Dave Naghi – Liberal Democrat – Faversham and Mid Kent
“I’ve been in the industry since I was 15,” says Dave Naghi, revealing the extent of his credentials to the construction sector.
Having trained as a painter and decorator, he is now a local councillor and business owner, specialising in “anything up to extensions”.
He is still working full-time while campaigning to unseat the Tories from Faversham.
Asked what the biggest issue is for small business owners like himself, Mr Naghi’s answer is simple: tax.
“You’ve got to keep small businesses going,” he says.
“Putting the threshold up so people pay less tax has helped working people because we can’t all sit at home, watching Jeremy Kyle and getting clinically obese”
“You need to have cheaper business rates so people will want to open businesses – it needs looking at, definitely.”
One of the things Mr Naghi is most proud of from his party’s record as junior partner in the coalition is the raising of the income tax threshold for low earners.
It is a decision he firmly believes has helped the rise in apprentice numbers, and for which his party should take the credit.
“This is something the Lib Dems did,” he insists. “We wanted to up the tax threshold for all working people.
“David Cameron said we could never afford it, but we have.
“Putting the threshold up so people pay less tax has helped working people because we can’t all sit at home, watching Jeremy Kyle and getting clinically obese.”
A former apprentice himself, Mr Naghi believes that without the raising of the threshold, the rise in apprenticeships since the last election would never have happened.
“Everyone agrees one’s got to happen. It’ll probably be Gatwick… Heathrow would be a nightmare; you’d make the traffic worse and people’s lives a misery”
While some see little difference between the three traditional parties on many policies, the Lib Dems have taken a stand when it comes to the expansion of London’s airport capacity, saying they would not support an additional runway at either Heathrow or Gatwick.
As a local councillor in the South-east, it’s an issue that Mr Naghi knows affects his constituents.
While he would have favoured the expansion of Manston Airport on his own Kent doorstep – “it would have been perfect” – he now accepts, unlike his party, that one of London’s two main airports will have to grow.
“Everyone agrees one’s got to happen,” he says. “It’ll probably be Gatwick, as it has the infrastructure and can take the traffic.
“Heathrow would be a nightmare; you’d make the traffic worse and people’s lives a misery.”
On another major talking point – High Speed 2 – Mr Naghi is dismissive of critics.
“HS2 is very similar to [the high-speed link] we have in Kent now. We had the same arguments and does anyone moan about it now it’s gone in? No.
“They didn’t want it in their lovely green fields but once it’s in you don’t notice it.”
This election will be the third time Mr Naghi has run for parliament and he believes the Lib Dems can overturn a 17,000 Tory majority.
“It’s the third time I’ve stood and I’m getting better each time,” he laughs.
Peter Staveley – Ukip – Croydon Central
Peter Staveley probably understands more than many parliamentary candidates about the need for infrastructure investment.
As an independent transport consultant for the past two decades, Mr Staveley has worked on several of the country’s most important projects, including High Speed 2 for Parsons Brinckerhoff and the Great West Main Line for the Department for Transport.
It’s perhaps unsurprising then that he admits to “a slight difference of opinion” with his party over the future of HS2, a project Nigel Farage has said he would like to see scrapped.
Instead, Mr Staveley says there “needs to be a proper debate over whether HS2 is the solution to the problem of capacity on our railways”.
“The UK should be training these young people and employing them to undertake the unskilled/semi-skilled jobs”
Where he and his party do agree is over Europe, and he shrugs off the suggestion that exiting the EU would acerbate the skills crisis or make it more difficult to deliver major projects.
“There are one million young people (under 24 years old) who are unemployed,” he says.
“The UK should be training these people and employing them to undertake the unskilled/semi-skilled jobs.”
Mr Staveley also points to what he calls the “massive discrimination in the recruitment of foreign labour” as a result of EU membership, whereby non-EU workers are locked out of jobs open to EU migrants.
Ukip won fewer than 1,000 votes in Croydon Central constituency in 2010, equating to around 2 per cent of the local vote.
This time around, Mr Staveley says success would mean polling 13 per cent and taking third place ahead of the Liberal Democrats.
But Mr Staveley’s real target is next year’s London elections, where he believes he has a realistic chance of winning a seat on the London Assembly.
Tom Chance – Green Party – Lewisham West and Penge
For Tom Chance and his Green Party colleagues, the mainstream parties have got it wrong when it comes to the type of infrastructure investment currently on the table.
Instead of a £15bn road investment programme and major projects such as HS2, the Greens would pump £85bn into renewable energy, flood defences and building insulation.
The party has also promised an extra £20bn to invest in social housing.
“We’re talking about putting pretty big money in, just in different areas,” Mr Chance explains.
Currently the Greens’ housing spokesperson, Mr Chance is also a former employee of sustainable construction consultancy Bioregional.
“The volatility of the housing market gives peaks and troughs; when the government invests more steadily you don’t have to be so responsive to market cycles”
He strongly believes that diverting investment away from the big-ticket schemes and into housing development is best not only for the country, but also for the construction sector.
“For companies involved in construction it gives much more stability,” he explains.
“The volatility of the housing market gives peaks and troughs; when the government invests more steadily you don’t have to be so responsive to market cycles, so we see that level of investment as good for the sector.”
On the Greens’ pledge to build 100,000 social rent homes a year, Mr Chance says this is a realistic target, calling it “not unprecedented” when compared with the level of building in the post-war years.
On planning, the party says it would repeal the National Planning Policy Framework and its presumption in favour of development.
Mr Chance denies there is a tension between the policy and the Greens’ ambitious housebuilding programme.
“We want to move towards a model where local authorities are much more proactive in terms of planning,” he says, adding that the NPPF serves to “further entrench ‘Nimby’ opposition”.
“We want people to see that housing being built helps the local community.”
Nicholas Ward – Independent – Westminster North
Many a politician standing in next month’s election has cited High Speed 2 as a potentially divisive project.
But Nicholas Ward is the only one making it the sole focus of his campaign.
Mr Ward, standing for election on the doorstep of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster North, is a single issue candidate calling for the government to scrap what he describes as a “vanity project”.
A retired accountant and businessman who specialised in turning around companies, Mr Ward has been fighting HS2 ever since the project, which will run close to his Northamptonshire home, was announced.
He is also a former public member of Network Rail, giving him the right to vote in its AGM, and earlier this year he gave evidence to the High Speed Rail select committee.
“The three main parties are all in favour and the smaller parties who oppose HS2 have other baggage which may make them unattractive to many electors”
He says the cross-party support from Westminster’s three biggest parties led to his decision to stand for parliament.
“The problem is that there is no effective opposition to HS2,” he explains.
“The three main parties are all in favour of the project and the smaller parties who oppose HS2 have other baggage which may make them unattractive to many electors who oppose HS2.”