The Brexit election: Beating the drum

A large majority would give the Conservative more freedom in the Brexit negotiations but how would they use it? And are they listening to construction’s concerns?

If UK voters have learned anything about elections in the past two years - apart from a slightly enhanced grasp of where their local polling station is - it is that opinion polls cannot be relied upon.

Nonetheless, the Conservatives’ current commanding lead, which according to an average of several polls stood at 20 percentage points at the start of the week, has led to much analysis about the scale of majority Theresa May could command after 8 June. And within construction, a growing sense of optimism that this could translate into greater surety over future projects - a step closer to the industry’s holy grail of a visible, stable pipeline.

The kind of majority being bandied about by some commentators - up to around 140 seats, compared with the current paper-thin 17 - would certainly be a boost when it comes to politically divisive large-scale infrastructure projects, like the third runway at Heathrow, which has been plagued for years by fretting over electoral implications for marginal west London seats. It would also, potentially, be helpful for housebuilding, with ministers less in thrall to individual local MPs who may be opposed to development.

But for Theresa May, the biggest win from a large majority would - by an imperial country mile - be the strength it would give her government to have its own way on Brexit. And greater certainty over a pipeline of work is scant comfort if the wider market conditions are not there to deliver it. So for the industry, the biggest question in what has been billed as “the Brexit Election”, is what implications the kind of Brexit May propounds would have for the sector.

The benefits to the sector of a strong parliamentary majority will only be felt if that majority is used to push for the right things

The industry stands to be hugely affected by the outcome of two of the fiercest battles in negotiations with the EU: immigration, with non-British EU workers numbering one in four on London’s construction sites, and trade. So far, May has favoured a “hard Brexit” take on these topics, with withdrawal from the single market and customs union, and a hard line on immigration. Both - deliberately - appear like seismic change from current arrangements (because Brexit has to mean Brexit), but the detail behind her headline stance is still far from clear.

May has talked vaguely of potential alternative trade deals with the EU and other states, and of flexible labour deals for high priority sectors (a label which, so far, she has not applied to construction). How the Conservatives flesh out these policies - and how much notice they take of construction when they do so - will be of critical importance to the sector if the Tories do have an emphatic victory in June.

The benefits to the sector of a strong parliamentary majority will only be felt if that majority is used to push for the right things. Now, as the Conservatives, and those who challenge them, draw up their manifestos, is the time the industry needs to make itself heard.

In our election feature this week, we assess how the main parliamentary parties have lined up so far against the aims of our Building a Better Brexit manifesto, which now has the backing of more than 125 company and individual signatories from across the sector. Over the coming weeks, we will use the manifesto as a basis to push the parties to address construction’s concerns in their own manifesto commitments, and we urge you to add your voice to our campaign atbuilding.co.uk/Brexit.

Inevitably, Brexit will take centre stage in the run-up to the election. But the industry also has an opportunity to push for the parties to address key concerns elsewhere, most obviously on housing. With the UK struggling to house its citizens at a cost they can afford, this would in any other circumstances be a key battleground going into the polls.

It would stretch even the most ardent optimist in the sector to believe that the issue will get the attention it deserves - but, as we explore in our housing feature, there is still a chance to push for relatively unradical manifesto commitments that would help tackle the crisis in years to come.

The prospect of a host of ministerial changes, whatever the election outcome, will offer further opportunity to make the case for such measures - but it will also, frustratingly, act as a brake on initiatives and conversations already under way.

This inevitable hiatus, which, with the parliamentary recess and then the political conferences on the horizon, will only start to ease once the autumn Budget nears. So, construction, now’s the time to make some noise.

Sarah Richardson, editor

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