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Blair's bitter aftertaste


From the comments in NCE this week, Tony Blair's contribution to the construction industry over the last decade is seen as largely positive.

He has presided over a sustained period of stable government with a healthy and growing economy. This has enabled public cash to be directed at infrastructure but, more significantly, has allowed the private sector to drive investment.

Was this was more Gordon Brown's achievement? Perhaps, but it was Blair who led the New Labour revolution, paving the way for Brown's policies as Chancellor.

Blair will never be especially remembered for his contribution to the construction industry. But as he prepares to hand over the premiership to Brown, construction is in pretty good shape. We see huge activity in planning and design, record order books in contracting, and across the country, construction is tangibly changing lives and communities for the better.

Whether as a result of Blair's leadership or not, construction has certainly changed since 1997. It has in many ways grown up as a more sophisticated, complex and global business.

We have seen a real move away from the boom and bust cycle that dogged the industry for decades. We have seen greater emphasis on client need, quality design and quality construction on projects. And we have seen a huge shift in the way we approach health, safety and welfare.

Construction is now very much a driving force in the economy.

Yet amid all these positives, our commentators also highlight a number of negatives, ranging from Blair's failure to give construction a dedicated minister to the tendency to centralise bureaucracy which now characterises this government.

Two missed opportunities stand out for me.

First is Blair's continued reluctance, despite much talk to the contrary, to take on climate change with truly radical policies for transport, energy, waste reduction and planning.

Overwhelming post election public support gave Blair a great opportunity to be almost draconian in pursuit of an issue which is clearly close to his heart.

But the moment was missed.

Iraq intervened and we remain way behind the rest of Europe when it comes to public transport provision, renewable energy generation, recycling and energy efficiency.

For me this is a real shame because that sort of opportunity does not come around very often. Blair could have genuinely taken the UK into a new territory and given us the opportunity to lead the world's response.

Second, and very much linked, is his failure to really recognise science, engineering and technology as the main driver for the nation's economic and social health and growth.

For all Blair has done to drive up student numbers in higher education, we have seen a lamentable erosion of support for science-based further education and for science-based solutions to social problems.

He has failed to understand and exploit the innovation and creativity that ws from a properly supported and motivated science base. And he has failed to understand and capitialise on the link between the provision of good modern public infrastructure and the nation's health - that investment in the right engineering solutions can save tenfold in health and social provision.

All of which is to be regretted.

Will Gordon Brown do better?

We will soon find out.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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