Party conferences to have key focus on construction and infrastructure

Over the next fortnight, Labour and the Conservatives visit Liverpool and Birmingham respectively for their party conferences. To say that the political landscape has changed somewhat since last year is an understatement. Andy Walker looks at what the two main parties are saying about construction.

When last year’s party conferences took place, David Cameron was still the leader of the Conservative party and George Osborne was riding high with his Northern Powerhouse initiative rarely out of the news. Labour had a new and unexpected leader in Jeremy Corbyn, who had just won a landslide victory in a vote of party members. 

A year later, Cameron and Osborne are history and Theresa May is leading the Tories at the head of a new, reformed government. Improbably, given the turmoil within Labour, Jeremy Corbyn is still likely to be the leader of his party next week in Liverpool and quite possibly after another landslide victory in a leadership election.

The Brexit vote will cast a shadow over both conferences and both Labour and the Tories will be looking to put forward policies to win the support of those millions of voters who felt left behind and disillusioned by, as they saw it, years of neglect by successive governments. Infrastructure investment is likely to be high on the agenda in Liverpool and Birmingham as both parties look for ways to boost the economy, rebuild the regions and create jobs and prosperity.

Those working in the infrastructure sector should be able to draw some comfort from both party conferences over the next fortnight as many of the announcements being made should have a beneficial effect on the industry. Jeremy Corbyn has been keen to focus on the importance of housing during his re-election campaign and also at the dispatch box in his parliamentary spats with Theresa May. 

"Jeremy Corbyn has been keen to focus on the importance of housing during his re-election campaign and also at the dispatch box in his parliamentary spats with Theresa May."

He is right to do so as 22% of respondents in a recent Ipsos MORI poll named housing as the most important issue facing the UK. This figure is the highest it has been for more than 40 years and it’s no surprise that housing will be high on the agenda at both the Labour and Tory events over the next fortnight.

As far as Labour is concerned, investment in social housing is certain to be discussed at the conference and at the many fringe events taking place in Liverpool. Devolution is still a hot topic for many in the party, given Labour’s still strong base in local government in the regions, so we can expect a lot of debate on local elected mayors, the city regions, transport and whether the Northern Powerhouse can survive the changes at the top of the Tory party.

During his re-election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn pledged that Labour will build a million homes in in five years, with half being council homes to be funded from a £500bn public investment package. Corbyn has also promised to introduce caps on rents and much greater security for tenancies as well as widening access to affordable home ownership. Labour's new leader will be hopiing that policies like this can win the party support amongst voters of all ages but especially the young. 

Labour clearly believes that it is worth borrowing to build and boost the economy and it will be interesting to hear shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s plans for an infrastructure investment bank fleshed out next week in Liverpool. The big trade unions, a key part of Labour and also, in the main, strong supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, are very keen to see the government press ahead with its infrastructure plans so it will be interesting to see how their input might affect Labour’s attitude to the delivery of the many large-scale projects currently in the pipeline.

In Birmingham a week later, the Conservatives will gather with a new leader and a reformed government following the aftermath of the Brexit vote. On the surface, all appears to be sweetness and light in the governing party, but party conferences have a habit of revealing the simmering differences below the surface, especially at the many fringe events. Leading Brexiteers, a number of whom now occupy key positions in Theresa May’s cabinet, will be keen to see the UK fast-track its negotiations to leave the EU. May, on the other hand, while continuing to insist that “Brexit means Brexit”, has even more pressing issues to attend to.

"It will also be interesting to see what Theresa May will announce about housing given its undoubted importance to the public and also given the high profile that the issue will receive at Labour's annual gathering in Liverpool. Housing is an issue that has the potential to be an electoral game-changer."

Infrastructure watchers will be keen to see further progress on the many large scale projects that have been side-lined since before the Brexit vote. Now that the government has given the green light on the Hinkley nuclear plant, there will be much expectation that a decision on the third runway for the south east will be announced at the conference in Birmingham.

It will also be interesting to see what Theresa May will announce about housing given its undoubted importance to the public and also given the profile the issue will receive at Labour’s annual gathering in Liverpool the week before. Housing is an issue that has the potential to be an electoral game-changer and the Conservatives will ignore it at their peril. 

The new Housing and Planning Act, which amongst its provisions allows fast-track planning in designated zones and a big increase in starter homes is yet to be fully explained by ministers and many in construction will be looking to the Tories’ deliberations in Birmingham to clarify matters about how things will work in practice. Traditionally, the Tories have seen the housing issue as all being about home ownership, but will Theresa May’s much vaunted commitment to help “those left behind” lead to a move to embrace social housing in the future?

May will also no doubt want to give a clear signal that devolution is still on track but there are already growing doubts over whether her government is really commitment to the issue as much as Cameroon and Osborne were. It will be interesting to see if George Osborne’s new Northern Powerhouse think tank will be active at the fringe in Birmingham. He’ll certainly be keeping an eye on his former colleagues’ progress in this area.

As is usual at a Conservative annual event, there is bound to be much focus on the economy and we should expect more announcements from new chancellor Phillip Hammond about the government’s fiscal strategy going forward. His speech in Birmingham will be keenly watched for clues to the Autumn Statement, due in November, which will map out much of the government’s economic approach from now until the next general election.

There should be much to interest the infrastructure sector in Liverpool and Birmingham over the next two weeks and Infrastructure Intelligence will keep abreast of the key issues raised at both events by reporting anything of note.

Andy Walker is the editor of Infrastructure Intelligence.

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