High expectations from industry as Boris Johnson starts work at Number Ten

The new PM will face heightened expectation from the UK regions, many of which feel they have received a raw deal under his predecessor.

After being elected as the new leader of the Conservative party with 92,153 votes (or 0.2% of the UK electorate), Boris Johnson takes over as the UK’s latest prime minister with a mounting in-tray of issues to deal with and the Brexit issue still festering away and unresolved, writes Andy Walker.

Many commentators observe that the new PM has an even harder task that the previous incumbent, with expectations high from many sectors following a prolonged period of political, economic and business uncertainty. Expectations are certainly high in the construction sector, with many keen for major infrastructure projects to be given the go-ahead or fast-tracked, so the prospect of a lengthy honeymoon period for Johnson appears slim.  

David Barwell, UK and Ireland chief executive at AECOM, said: “Whilst Mr Johnson’s view on the future of some key infrastructure projects has in the past been mixed, his appointment as our new prime minister gives him the perfect opportunity to do what’s right for the country - backing investment in infrastructure and providing certainty around our future pipeline.

“I was extremely pleased to hear the promise of “better infrastructure” in Mr Johnson’s acceptance speech and regardless of Brexit I would suggest a starting point for his plan to “energise the country” would be to fully endorse schemes such as HS2, Crossrail 2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and Heathrow’s expansion. All of which must proceed if we are to maintain our country’s ability to compete on a global stage.” No pressure there then!

Atkins president, Philip Hoare said: “We look forward to seeing the continued implementation of the National Infrastructure Plan, alongside the industrial strategy and sector deal partnerships, recognising the importance of a long-term vision to grow the economy and create more opportunities for people across the UK.” Hoare also said he hoped that Johnson would seek cross-party support for major, transformational projects and the digital infrastructure needed to secure the country’s future as a “more productive, efficient and resilient player on the world stage”.

Housing is a key area for the new PM to get to grips with, said Mark Sitch, senior partner at design and planning consultancy Barton Willmore. “We continue to underdeliver the homes that the country needs and the new prime minister should consider all the options available to deliver well-designed, high quality housing at all tenures across the country and this should include brownfield land, as well as greenfield and green belt land in the right locations,” said Sitch.

Sitch said it was important that the new government invests in infrastructure and not just the glamorous, high-profile projects. “We need investment in water, energy, public transport and roads, as well as new train lines, airports and ports. It’s also fundamental that this financial boost takes place in our major cities and towns across the country alongside London,” he said.

Mark Robinson, chief executive of the public sector procurement organisation Scape Group, commented: “While the outcome of the Tory leadership contest is no surprise, the next couple of months are likely to hold one or two. Boris Johnson has made a lot of promises during his month-long campaign and his ambition is undeniable, but this would all be delivered against a backdrop of Brexit and tax cuts to individuals and corporations. The economics don’t match-up and something is going to have to give – and I don’t see it being the tax breaks.” 

Voicing his concerns about a no-deal Brexit, Robinson said that greater transparency was needed on the UK’s future position with the rest of the world to increase business optimism and a defined transition period was the best chance of securing this. “Latest data from the construction industry shows that output is slowing down and, on the ground, projects are not being pushed forward by either the public or the private sector. The country would benefit from certainty and crashing out without a deal isn’t going to provide this,” Robinson said.

Johnson also faces demands and expectation from the UK regions, many of which feel they have received a raw deal under his predecessor. Anna Round, senior research fellow at IPPR North, said: “Boris Johnson has the opportunity to begin to rebuild trust between the people of the north of England and the government. He cannot waste it. He must act immediately to demonstrate his personal commitment to ‘Power up the North’.

“Too many of the people and places in the north are yet to see the benefits of the Northern Powerhouse agenda. One million northern children live in poverty, and too many adults live in chronic ill-health before they reach state pension age. That’s why it’s imperative that Mr Johnson moves the Northern Powerhouse into a new phase, and quickly, because northerners cannot wait for economic justice.”.

So, plenty there to pile onto Boris Johnson’s ever-increasing in-tray. Will he take heed of the industry’s calls for greater investment and action on key infrastructure? Time will tell, but if he wants to identify a sector whose work can provide a shot in the arm to the UK economy while boosting economic confidence a the same time, then he need look no further than construction. 

Andy Walker is the editor of Infrastructure Intelligence.

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