Looking back: key construction themes over 14 years of Tory rule


It’s official: after 14 years, the Conservative Party’s time in government has ended. Five prime ministers, 16 construction ministers and 16 housing ministers on, what will we remember as the party’s biggest legacy for construction?

Austerity

The coalition government led by David Cameron (pictured on the right) first took the reins in 2010 over a country deep in recession, cutting public sector budgets left, right and centre – with a stark impact on construction pipelines. A £55m school building fund? Gone. Council building budgets? Slashed. In 2019 then-chancellor Sajid Javid declared an end to austerity, although public sector spending has yet to recover to previous levels.

Infrastructure

The Conservatives might be best remembered by the construction industry for the number of big-ticket infrastructure projects it pushed forward. Or, perhaps, by its poor management of them. Crossrail opened three years late and £4bn over budget, and Hinkley Point C looks set to follow a similar pattern, having already reported doubled costs and delays of up to four years.

Of course, the largest of all the megaprojects was HS2. While the cross-country high-speed rail route was a Labour invention, it was their successors that oversaw continued cost increases and delays during the detailed design and construction phases. Not to mention the scrapping of the line from the West Midlands to Manchester and through the East Midlands to Leeds.

Building safety

Tragedy struck the week after the June 2017 snap election. The Grenfell Tower fire was the UK’s worst peacetime residential fire, prompting heavy scrutiny of government policy and construction industry practice.

The government responded first by ordering an inquiry, then by clamping down on combustible cladding, then by implementing one of the most sweeping regulatory reforms many contractors have had to deal with in their working lives.

In 2021 it also apologised, saying it was “deeply sorry for its past failures” in overseeing building safety.

Construction companies are still working through the new system, headed up by a new Building Safety Regulator within the Health and Safety Executive. But it’s clear the Conservatives have brought about a fundamental change in how we approach building.

Brexit

One of the defining political footballs of the 2010s did not leave the construction industry unscathed. Extracting the country from the tangle of EU laws has caused headaches for industry and government U-turns ranging from safety laws to construction product certification. A stark drop in the number of EU-born workers complicated the ever-present skills shortage, while uncertainty over trade deals threatened to compound material price increases.

Net zero

Carbon-cutting was a difficult sell in 2010. New Labour tried and failed in 2007 to make housebuilders commit to zero carbon, but by the end of the Conservatives’ reign the tides had changed. Theresa May announced the UK would commit to reducing its net carbon footprint to zero, with her successor Boris Johnson signing it into law. Rather than shy away from the carbon toll of construction, many contractors have adopted their own climate targets, exceeding the government’s.

The policy is, of course, not uncontroversial. While reducing carbon has moved up the agenda, the Conservatives have faced criticism for a lack of vision. Sunak rolled back targets on home insulation and boiler replacement, and a Future Homes Standard for low-carbon buildings, promised by 2025, has not yet materialised.

Everything else

The above list is not exhaustive. A few special mentions are deserved that impacted the construction sector: Covid, the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the 2012 Olympics, the 2019 Conservative manifesto promise to “level up”, RAAC, the Farmer Review, the end of the chief construction adviser, the rise of the Construction Leadership Council, the collapse of Carillion…



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