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Graham Watts Never mind the quality, feel the width

After the general election, I suggested that the construction industry might not be so well served by the new structure for its sponsoring department. How does it look two years on?

The industry has got bigger and is getting better, but the £60bn it contributes to the economy does not merit much presence within government. Sponsoring construction consumes less than 0.5% of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions' budget - a drop in the ocean of government expenditure.

Construction now occupies a similarly low proportion of the Secretary of State's time, which is a significant change under Labour. Checking my diary for 1996, I find that John Gummer probably attended more construction events in a month than John Prescott has in two years. Does it matter? Well, in terms of showing up at industry dinners, it surely doesn't.

But construction needs advocacy within government and this is where I feel our sponsorship has been weakened.

Construction's voice within Cabinet comes from the Deputy Prime Minister. This ought to be good for us, but the merging of the departments of environment and transport soon after the 97 election means Prescott now occupies two other roles that not so long ago merited a Cabinet post on their own.

For a time, this was recognised by an additional Transport Minister in the Cabinet but Dr Strang's career in the higher echelons of politics was short-lived and since July 98, Big John has taken all the kicks. There is also the considerable added weight of 'the Regions'. Altogether, this is a HUGE job and it is difficult to comprehend the logistics of how it can be done by one politician, however heavyweight he may be.

The answer must lie in delegation. John Prescott has an extraordinarily good ministerial team. I would even say that we are ending the century with perhaps the best political team looking after our Environment and Transport that there has been at any time in the last 100 years, even though there are fewer of them.

There are very strong intellectual qualities, a good balance of Labour interests, a wealth of relevant experience and, without exception, they are confident, articulate and knowing. They bring together at least one who should have been in the Cabinet with others who surely will be. However, just as we value the excellence of today's team, so we also know that it might all change tomorrow.

Two DETR ministers remain threatened by past or present allegiances, another two are possible Mayoral candidates for London and several deserve promotion. Hilary Armstrong and Nick Raynsford are ministers of exceptional quality but I hope, for their sakes, that they aren't stuck in the same job for too long. Raynsford has paved the way for the London Mayor and, indeed, it might be him. He has an obvious passion for the city and his entire working and political career has been in London. If the job attracts him, I can't imagine a better candidate.

All of this leads me to conclude that we may lose a fair proportion of our ministers in the next year and I am sure that the next generation, however worthy, cannot be so good.

In years gone by we have endured some dreadful ministers and I am sure that we will have to do so again.

If we lose the quality then feeling the width will become so much more important.

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