Getting their own house in order

The government has been willing to listen to advice from the construction industry when considering the renovation of its home in Westminster. Would it not be wise to listen to our views on the housing shortage and Brexit as well?

Being bored by politics, at the moment, must feel a bit like being a teetotaller who has mistakenly turned up at a wine tasting session. The intersection of Westminster and those working in the built environment has never been more apparent and the ability of those we elect to parliament to directly impact those of us working day to day to get things built has never been more obvious.

At the same time as Brexit and the housing white paper are being debated, some of our designers, consultants and contractors are all about to become involved in the planned renovation and refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster, the home of our democracy.

Its proposed rebuilding is causing consternation and concern among MPs and Lords in equal measure and it is one of the few occasions when a topic seems to ignite similar interest whether you are a newish Scottish National Party MP or a long-established Lord from the shires. Everyone seems to have a view and many feel very exercised about the whole topic.

It is interesting to look back at the time when what we now know as the current Palace of Westminster was first designed by the architects Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin in the 1840s. Ever the prudent cost manager, the original estimate from Barry was apparently just under £725,000 (excluding cost of site, embankment and furnishings) and had a time line of six years. In the end it took 25 years and by 1854 had an estimated cost of around £2.1m and, incidentally, nearly drove the architect mad in the process.

At the same time as they are getting animated about the future of their place of work, MPs and Lords are currently also pondering two massive areas of legislation, the enactment of which will affect the way the rest of us work for many decades to come. For it is not an exaggeration when I say that the Brexit process and the housing white paper could both shape where and how we are allowed to build in the future and who we are able to employ to undertake that construction.

As ever when the issues of Europe and housing are discussed, there is much heat but very little light. The two topics are united by a tribalism that at times symbolises the farcical and often typifies the ignorance that pervades much of politics at this time. We are in the era of “fake news” and “alt-reality”; something that appears all too obvious when listening to those operating in the political arena at home and abroad.

Never before in the modern era have we lived in a time when things are supposedly so transparent, with 24 hour news and non-stop social media, but where it turns out that it is not the individual with the logic-based, reasoned, informed argument that prevails but the personality that is “good box office” and makes the most aggressive grab for centre stage.

Parliament has wisely sought the advice of those who may be responsible for building its new home. This is gratifying when so much funding from the public purse is going to be needed. I am pleased that they are consulting so thoroughly and so widely before laying the first brick. Would it not have been sensible to do the same before entering a debate into our exit from the EU and our need to build 1 million new homes before 2020?

As we approach the trigger point for Article 50 at some point next month, it is clear that the construction industry, so vital in enacting the new housing policy also under discussion, should have been consulted by the legislators. However, it would seem that we have had to pester, lobby, shout and cajole to get a place at the table and, even now, I am not sure that our protestations of skills shortages, projected inflation and planning freedom have been heard.

As far as the Brexit negotiations are concerned there appears to have been no discernible linkage made between the predicted impact of restrictions on the free movement of labour, desired by those working towards a “hard Brexit”, and the potential negative impact on housing, Hinkley, Heathrow and HS2 of having too few workers available to build them.

Perhaps ministers think a prefabricated, pre-assembled power station, runway and rail network is the answer.

The housing sector may have breathed a sigh of relief at the contents of the housing white paper earlier this month. It was long on objectives but short on detail and did nothing to dent the share prices of housebuilders, I note. Overall though, for such a long consultation period, so much delay in its publication and the need for clear direction, I think the general consensus was that it was lacking bite.

The government could not wait to speed up to Newcastle to appease the car industry before starting negotiations. Perhaps they might remember that, in the era of Trump and Farage, it is not always those that shout loudest that offer the greatest wisdom.



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