Minister for what, exactly?

The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.”

So Ian Pearson has been promoted in the cabinet reshuffle to become economics minister to Treasury.

You may well be scratching your head and asking ‘who’. I was for a while. Well, he is, or, rather, was, our eighth construction minister since 2001 and, at the time of writing, there had been no announcement about the ninth. (It’s since been confirmed on Friday morning as Ian Lucas, MP for Wrexham);

It strikes me that this is typical of the way the construction industry is viewed by those in power as of fairly limited importance and, if a politician really has to take on the role of minister then it’s really just a stepping stone to greater things, a post to be endured rather than embraced. Pearson was in post for just eight months.

And what exactly does a construction minister do? What, precisely has this succession of people actually achieved on the industry’s behalf? Beats me.

The trouble is, most people – politicians included – think of construction as either big commercial sites with huge cranes, the housing site down the road, or the bloke with the van who’s doing next door’s extension. They don’t see the rest of it.

The stats vary depending who you talk to but construction accounts for something like 8% of UK GDP and employs hundreds of thousands of people. And that’s just taking into account housebuilding, commercial property and RMI work.

Let’s face it, according to the CPA, the product sector itself is worth £40bn a year, even now. Then there are all the peripherals, the people whose livelihoods are directly affected by what happens to construction, even if they aren’t counted as working for it: removal men, estate agents, solicitors’ conveyancing departments. Oh yes, and the people who work in the manufacture and distribution of building materials: suppliers and merchants.

There may be a few brighter notes out there – the RICS has noticed estate agents getting busier, the CIPS’s index is now only a few points short of the point where things stop getting worse and start levelling off – but it’s only a start, if that. In June’s BMJ, (out next week) the CEOs of both Wolseley and Travis Perkins are quoted saying that things are unlikely to improve significantly for the sector much before 2011.

Maybe if the government took the industry a bit more seriously we might see things happening a bit more quickly. But of course they’re far too busy trying to save their own political careers to worry over-much about anyone else’s.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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