Wednesday, October 25, 2017


The 2017 Party Conference season may go down as one of the most influential in British politics for decades. Labour Party conference in Brighton enjoyed an energy and enthusiasm that the party hasn’t seen for years, while the Conservatives in Manchester were perhaps generating headlines for reasons that they didn’t anticipate. 

Regardless of the scenes of comedy, grandstanding and rhetoric the BESA were pleased to be at both the Labour and Conservative conferences for the first time. Moreover, we were pleased to see the high levels of attention that housing, construction, the built environment, infrastructure and skills had on both Party’s agendas.

The sheer number of housing, construction, skills and training events in both Brighton and Manchester show that politicians on both sides may finally be waking up to the importance of our industry and the built environment to the UK, and starting to understand some key challenges that we face going forward.

Labour: ‘Oh - Jeremy Corbyn!’

While it would have been tempting to enjoy the sunny Brighton beaches and spend a few hours at the Wine & Spirit Trade Association event and the Politi-karaoke, BESA went to Brighton with a clear intention. Armed with a petition to tackle the issue of cash retentions, BESA were making sure the Labour Party know what the built environment needs and what Labour MPs should be doing to help.

We happily announce that the BESA petition, in partnership with the electromechanical contractors association the ECA, received signatures from a broad range of the Labour Party. Support included Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Party General Secretary Iain McNichol, alongside signatures from a Labour Peer, MP, Councillors, Member of the Scottish Parliament, a prominent Union and the President of RIBA. Displaying a clear appetite to tackle this issue, BESA made contact with over 35 Labour MPs, 10 of whom are Shadow Cabinet members.

This has given BESA and the ECA a great starting point to drive forward our agenda, and make sure that our members and sector are not just at the table, but leading the discussion.

The number of housing events and discussions in Brighton meant that there was always somewhere to be and someone new to meet. Whether it was ‘Built Environment & Brexit,’ ‘Housing After Grenfell,’ ‘The Apprenticeships Panel’ or ‘Tackling the Skills Gap,’ BESA were there. As well as familiar friends like the CIOB, RICS, RIBA and FSB, it was very productive to make new links with groups such as the National House Building Council, Industry Forum, Midlands Engine and the Business Sprinkler Alliance.

Filled with confidence since a shock election result, netting 30 extra MPs, Jeremy Corbyn kept his momentum going from the popular election manifesto. His closing speech on Wednesday (Sept.27th) drew huge applause from the Labour Party faithful, but also from others. Alongside a proposed complete overhaul of the UK’s economic system, Mr Corbyn announced a number of new policies that included apprenticeships, rent capping, compulsory purchase of unused land owned by developers and an extremely ambitious new house building programme throughout the UK.

The Brighton stage was used to launch the biggest council housebuilding policy in Britain for over 30 years. Regardless of personal opinion however, and with politics and economics aside, it is encouraging to see the built environment taking centre stage on the political agenda and even more encouraging to see an appetite to tackle the issue of retentions.

However, to achieve the goals that they have set out, Labour need to involve the specialist contractors and SMEs that BESA and the ECA represent into discussions and planning. We have been sure to let Labour know that there are key issues, that those not in construction may not be aware of, severely damaging the capacity and productivity of the SME majority of the industry, without which there can’t be any major new building projects.

Conservative: ‘The British Dream!’

Speculation of Cabinet Reshuffles, stories of attempted coups, comedic appearances and high security, Conservative Party conference in Manchester certainly delivered drama and headlines. But for BESA it also delivered an excellent opportunity to raise awareness and enact change on some of the key issues facing members.

As in Brighton, Manchester played host to a high number of housing, built environment and skills events. Living up to their reputation as ‘the Party of business,’ Conservative talks and debates attracted more private sector voices to discussions around local industrial strategy, ‘The Apprenticeship Levy Debate,’ ‘the Value of UK Construction’ and ‘Modular Solutions for Housing.’ At a conference where Brexit was at the front of most people’s thoughts, it was good to get involved with such a broad range of built environment meetings and discussions.

While enjoying seeing some familiar faces from the CIOB, RICS, RIBA and the FSB, BESA were very pleased to connect with over 50 Conservative MPs and Government Ministers.

In her final speech the Prime Minister spoke about new council homes, more housebuilding and a key narrative around the ‘British Dream’ for young people. Some have claimed that this strongly echoes Ed Miliband’s speech in 2014, but we noticed that the built environment is now enjoying more attention from the Government as well as the opposition.

Theresa May announced that Government will meet its manifesto pledge to renew the building of council and social housing, adding £2 billion to the existing pot from which social housing comes. This will be in the form of an extra 12,500 homes for social rent being built each year in 2020 and 2021 with councils and housing associations able to bid for funding.

This added to earlier conference announcements by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid of extending ‘Help to Buy’ with more protection for tenants. While some housing experts, charities and rival politicians say that the number is too low, it is good to see construction and the built environment enjoying more government attention. Alongside retentions, skills, apprenticeships and green policies, BESA were sure to raise the issue of late payment and inefficiency in public contracts also.

With Conservative Party conference now over, BESA and the ECA are going forward with a lot of new connections and hopefully a lot more support for change. We will be building on new relationships over the coming weeks and months to make sure that our members are more involved, more represented and better reflected in Government policy.

While perhaps not as ambitious as the Labour Party’s new building proposals, the same issue applies: to achieve more building and a better built environment, Government must involve specialist contractors and SMEs. Without some key reforms the Government will not be building the additional houses that the country needs, and we at the BESA will be here to remind them of that.

This All Means?

The Party Conference season is generally used by the media, political observers and politicians to gauge key positions and launch new policy ideas. But this year Party Conference season has been used by the BESA to get in front of the key legislators, most prominent opposition and like-minded industry figures.

Politically it was a fascinating couple of weeks, with Labour solidifying their position more to the left and the Government moving slightly more right. The PM’s speech was overshadowed by unforeseen events, while Jeremy Corbyn appears to have finally cemented himself as the undisputed Labour leader.

Our attendance was timely, given the extra focus on the built environment, alongside the growing calls from members for reform to issues like retentions, access to apprenticeships and planning. The new connections and links that have been made will be our starting point for a new campaign for reform, and members will be contacted soon with details of new developments.

There is an old saying that ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know.’ We are quickly changing that to ‘it is not who you know, but what you do!’

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