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Of all the industries in the UK, construction contributes much more than most to the public coffers and the monthly pay packet; but for all the big numbers, there seems way too little love, says Jim McClelland.

Small might be beautiful, but in the world of GDP, it is decidedly less desirable. Big always wins any boasting contest; and construction is huge, albeit a bit ugly.

The latest official Parliamentary briefing listed the construction industry as contributing £117bn to the UK economy in 2018 (6% of the national total), providing 2.4M jobs (6.6%).

To put these numbers in perspective, the UK aerospace sector — described as the most attractive in Europe and fourth in the world — has a reported turnover of a mere £35bn.

That is tiny by comparison.

It is no great surprise then to see the construction industry lauded as something of a national treasure:

"Construction underpins our economy and society. Few sectors have such an impact on communities across the UK or have the same potential to provide large numbers of high-skilled, well-paid jobs."

These warm words come not from the industry’s own spokespersons and PR machine, but appear in the official Foreword to the UK Government’s Construction Sector Deal.

Given this glowing endorsement of the importance of the construction sector and its value to the national economy, then, why is it so poorly served in Westminster?

Revolving-door policy

Part of the problem is the revolving-door policy operational in key Government posts.

The UK has been going through Housing Ministers at a rate of more than one a year for the past decade. Worse still, when Nadhim Zahawi was appointed Construction Minister last August, he became the third person to hold the job within a matter of just 12 months — more ejector seat, than hot seat.

Damningly, none of the incumbents put in an appearance at any of the six meetings of the Construction Leadership Council during 2019, either. Showing up, would be a start, at least.

So, what exactly is the issue; what’s not to like?

Housing is hard

Well, Housing is arguably one of those poisoned-chalice posts, much like Health and Education, especially in times of austerity. The new-build statistics disappoint more often than they impress, plus the Minister never seems to have either the clout to wield in Cabinet, or money to throw at the map.

Culturally, the UK is also obsessed with home ownership as an investment. So, with the built assets in short supply and high demand, housebuilders sit on their landbanks, while mortgage companies either hike their rates or drop their lending, or both. On paper, therefore, Housing is not an easy brief.

Not being easy, however, is no reason to treat the industry badly and with disrespect.

A bridge, or two, too far

Looking at construction in the wider sense, though, there would seem to be plenty of opportunity for aspiring players to make their mark in politics.

Beyond the myopia of residential market profiteering, visions of roads and runways, tunnels and train tracks, bridges and, well… more bridges, are popping up all over Whitehall, like some kind of infrastructure rash —  the bolder the ambition, the better (with some spectacular exceptions).

Doesn’t every government long for the legacy prize of a multi-billion-pound megaproject?

The megaproject as brand

Well, yes; and that is part of the problem. Megaprojects are obviously major revenue generators and employers of people. They can also drive industry-wide innovation at a speed and scale that would otherwise prove impossible to even envisage, never mind achieve.

However, each monolithic endeavour seems to assume almost celebrity status: it becomes a brand.

That, strangely enough, is not as good for construction as you might imagine. Superstar schemes such as HS2, Crossrail, the Channel Tunnel and Terminal 5 make headlines every day of the week, good or bad. For that very reason, though, they take on a life and identity of their own in the press and public consciousness. They actually stop being seen as construction projects and start to become household names, pictured in the investment hall of fame — they are the Hollywood of the industry.

Typical perceptions of a career in construction, though, remain rooted a long way from the world of air-kisses on the red carpet and tearful Oscar speeches. Most builders don’t inhabit planet Hollywood.

Learning to love SMEs

In 2018, the total number of construction SMEs broke the one million mark. By way of context, there are only 5.9M businesses in the UK, full stop. So, that means more than 1 in every 6 businesses in the whole country is a small-to-medium-sized construction firm.

These millions of entrepreneurial enterprises need all the help you would expect in a micro-business environment: everything from skills and training, via health and safety, to broadband and bank loans.

The also need a voice. And they need a bit of love.

In other words, as well as being the biggest deal ever in the history of UK GDP, construction is also just an industry, standing in front of a politician, asking them to love it.

Fingers crossed, then, that the sector begins to feel the love in the next Budget…

Jim McClelland is a Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist, speaker