Monday, September 30, 2019

Business leader calls for political unity

The President of the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) said it was time for “less politicking and more leadership” as the ongoing economic uncertainty caused by Brexit and the recent uproar in Parliament was causing “severe damage” to the economy and to countless SMEs up and down the country. 

“There is so much to do, but we are not being allowed to do it,” said John Norfolk, who is also senior project manager of the building engineering firm Imtech Engineering Services. “Parliament is now back sitting again, but the truth is that it has been paralysed for three years and, as a result, we have lost crucial time on: critical infrastructure projects; nuclear power stations; housing; schools; the NHS…and so on.”

Mr Norfolk recently addressed a large gathering of industry representatives at the Association’s annual lunch in central London where he said the government was not “taking back control”, but “losing the plot”.

“We are still not getting on with the projects that can improve living and working conditions; deliver social justice and move the country towards a low carbon future,” said Mr Norfolk.

He added that specialist contractors working in construction faced the double whammy of “reduced investment in our industry and…not being paid fairly or on time”.

Bad debts

He pointed out that British SMEs had lost more than £50bn in the last 12 months due to late payment and bad debts with serious knock-on effects for the wider economy and people’s health and well-being.

The leading political commentator and LBC radio presenter Iain Dale was guest speaker at the BESA event and warned that the current political and economic uncertainty could last for another two years.  He said it was highly possible that a second referendum would be called and, due to parliamentary procedures, that could not take place until next summer at the earliest.

“If the result is the same, we will be back where we started in terms of negotiating with the EU – and that could cause really serious problems for our economy,” said Mr Dale.

Mr Norfolk called for political parties of all persuasions to put the ongoing Brexit process and the looming General Election to one side and unite behind policies and initiatives that would benefit businesses and communities up and down the country. He said recent government initiatives could give everyone common cause.

The Secretary of State for Housing, Local Government and Communities Robert Jenrick has promised to push for a new building safety regulator and improved building regulation in line with the recommendations of the Hackitt Review.  

Mr Norfolk said this would lead to welcome scrutiny of technical skills and compliance across construction professions and should also be supported by increased government investment in training.

“Improving safety and competence is something every politician should be comfortable in supporting,” he added. “Whether you are the party that claims to support small businesses and the working class or backs free market economics, having a better quality built environment that improves living and working conditions for all is something you can all agree on.”

Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey has already urged the government to commit to improving building regulations in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech. This shows that the different parties can be “on the same page when they want to be”, according to Mr Norfolk. “Without a progressive and competent sector, how can we start to deliver on the government’s commitment to a net zero carbon economy by 2050?  Improving our built environment to address climate change will also allow us to address some of our biggest social justice problems. A low carbon built environment will also be a high quality built environment that offers a way out of poverty and poor health,” he added.

He lamented the fact that many SMEs with the skills needed to take on these challenges were being forced out of business “through no fault of their own”. Addressing poor payment practices would be crucial if the government was to deliver the recommendations called for in the Hackitt Review, which also identified the “shoddy regulation and poor compliance culture that leads to tragedies like the Grenfell Tower fire”.

“These are all things that the building engineering sector would happily work hand-in-hand with politicians to tackle,” said the BESA President, who called for the creation of a Retention Deposit Scheme to help tackle the scourge of missing and late payment for SMEs. He also said the next government should expand the remit of the Small Business Commissioner to include the construction industry and give him the power to fine.

Putting an end to the ‘tick box’ culture of the Building Regulations and making them more meaningful and enforceable would also help to drive up professional standards and make buildings “better and safer”.

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