Tories wipe infrastructure slate clean in Birmingham

As the taglines of top Conservative speeches capture public attention at their annual gathering, Julian Francis reports from Birmingham with an update on the discussions and what they mean for our industry.

The atmosphere in Birmingham is one of upbeat determination that comes from people knowing what they are doing and why they are doing it. 

Along with the other main parties, the Conservatives have had an influx of new members and their presence at the conference has introduced some energy and enthusiasm that has been missing at past events. This atmosphere is affecting everyone here and so people were commenting that the conference has been a success even before it has really begun.

The upbeat mood is not shared by all, however, as the spectre of David Cameron still haunts the place and his supporters have found themselves in the cold. People who were so confident last year in their position have become the butt of this year's jokes. A popular one in the bar is the view that the by-election in the safe seat of Whitney, held recently by Cameron, will be classed as a Conservative gain when the results come in. 

George Osborne is noticeable by his absence too, but that has not stopped people talking about him and wondering what he plans to do. Most delegates still praise the work he did as chancellor so the current leadership will have to be careful with how they handle his legacy, which also happens to be the party's record in government. Philip Hammond's line reflects this dilemma when he praises Osborne for making the right decisions at the time but pointing out that the times have now changed and so must the decisions. A more pragmatic approach is now needed than the previous position was how he put it to me.

Stage management has also been top of the agenda with the leadership fully aware that Brexit has the potential to dominate the conference, taking away much needed publicity for the government's social agenda. The answer has been simple and effective, by turning the Sunday agenda over fully to Brexit the issue was discussed and contained on the day when most people were not paying attention to the goings on in Birmingham. 

The prime minister led the way with an unprecedented opening speech declaring that Article 50 will be invoked by April 2017, that government not parliament will activate it and that legislation will be laid before the House to repeal the European Communities Act once the negotiations are concluded. This speech was enthusiastically received in the hall by delegates and was followed by a number of Brexit ministers all outlining a vision for a post-EU country.

Cue Monday and the focus changed back to the domestic agenda and the need to rebalance the economy. The slogan "a country that works for everyone" is everywhere, reminding people that the government is committed to a social welfare agenda above all else. In line with this, housing has been this year's big topic with a significant number of fringes focused on the issue. 

It has also had a starring role in both the chancellor's and communities secretary's speeches with a £2bn accelerated construction scheme and £3bn home building fund announced to increase house building across the UK. Whether this will be enough to build 40,000 homes by 2020, the government's target, is much debated in the conference halls. London politicians are not the only ones who are sceptical.

So what does all this mean for our industry? Well, economic infrastructure is not the dominant subject it has been in past years. With the big projects like HS2 and Hinckley out of the way the steam has come out of the subject. Only Heathrow expansion continues to excite delegates, with the Heathrow drinks reception on Sunday being well attended. All indications are that we will get an announcement shortly but no one is saying which way it will go, but Heathrow remains the bookies' favourite.

Chris Grayling tried to excite his audience as he outlined his plans to make the UK's transport network a world leader embracing high speed rail and driverless cars. This is a message that has been heartily embraced by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP that has been prominently promoting HS2 benefits to the regions at every opportunity. 

Despite this, social infrastructure is the more dominant subject at conference with the large-scale projects of the past coming off as a poor second. 

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the chancellor's speech which targeted the need to rebuild the UK economy by increasing the size and spread of the national wealth through increased productivity. Nods where made to infrastructure investment and the role of the National Infrastructure Commission in setting the agenda but his speech lacked the sweeping policy announcements of his predecessor. 

For those of us interested in this subject, there have been dark mutterings in hallways on the failure to appoint a new commercial secretary to lead on the infrastructure brief. It is felt that this demonstrates the government's lack of understanding on this issue and highlights how much work the industry has to do to champion its cause. 

It seems like the industry's slate has been wiped clean and we must now write on it afresh if we are to remain top of the government's agenda.

Julian Francis is director of policy and external affairs at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.