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No.14 General Elections


This week NCE hasn’t chosen one moment but rather three May events from the past 40 years. Cast your mind back to the aftermath of the last three changes of government and a common theme emerges.

In what appears to be a move to differentiate themselves from the poor spending decisions of their predecessor, each one began with a rather tight hold on the public purse where infrastructure spending was concerned.

Following the 1979 election of prime minister Margaret Thatcher, her subsequent reputation for unapologetic whip-cracking left question marks over the health of the construction industry.

Thatcher made short shrift of the Group of Eight construction industry leaders’ face-to-face plea the following year for a reprieve in the halt to local government construction projects and failed to offer any hope that cutbacks would not continue.

Labour’s arrival into power for the first time in 18 years with the May 1997 election of Tony Blair as prime minister was followed up with his swift and sweeping alterations and the dawn of New Labour. There was an immediate move away from long held Labour principles of state socialism, and instead the new government immediately began paving the way for private investment in a move that echoed Thatcher’s privatisation efforts in the later stages of her realm, most notably in the sell-off of major national utilities.

For New Labour there was an all-out assault on selling the benefits of private finance initiatives - within days of coming to power it scrapped rules forcing governments to test the suitability of privately funded new projects.

The early indications were clear: government departments had better find a way to entice private spending on national priorities, as urged by deputy prime minister John Prescott in his dual role as head of the new transport and environment super-ministry.

Come the new millennium Prescott attempted to usher in a new transport era full of light rail, road pricing and improved buses with a £180bn, 10 year plan. Just a few years on the death knell was sounded, with targets for cutting road congestion and increasing the numbers using public transport and walking and cycling all dumped.

Fast forward to the coalition government of today, and following the May 2010 election the message was clear, an economic crisis coupled with frivolous spending by an opposing predecessor and the only answer is a tightening of belts again.

However, two years on and there is no improvement in the economy, but more importantly no improvement in the construction and infrastructure sectors. Gradually and quietly the government has begun to slot back in road schemes that it immediately halted, but it remains to be seen if it will have a change of heart in stimulating a new infrastructure boom.

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