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Mark Prisk: Ready for the hot seat

The Conservatives are coming. If the polls are to be believed, they are most likely to be running the country after next year’s General Election. Jessica Rowson talks to the shadow construction minister on the key issues he will tackle if the Tories win.

The churn rate for the role of construction minister is astonishing. The average length of service for the last seven construction minsters is just over one year. Since 2001 eight different people have held the post.

Mark Prisk is somewhat unusual, then. For a start he has been the shadow minister for construction for the past four years. And uniquely, he has a construction background, having worked as a quantity surveyor, and run his own construction business. By contrast, the previous eight ministers have been an interesting mix of ex-journalists, solicitors and investment bankers.

“We will offer clarity and consistency if elected. [David] Cameron lets you fully take on the job. ”

Mark Prisk, shadow construction minister

If nothing else, Prisk promises longevity coupled with a passion for the construction industry. “We will offer clarity and consistency if elected next year,” he says. “[Conservative leader David] Cameron, once appointed, lets you fully take on the job.”

He is keen to see the industry freed from bureaucracy and allowed to flourish. “The government must be aware of its limitations and not tinker [where it is not needed],” he says. “We want to provide a long-term framework for civil engineering businesses to prosper. We have world-class businesses in construction. This is the country of Brunel, we have first-class skills and world-class players − it’s not riddled with problems.”

Here, Prisk outlines where the key challenges and priorities lie.

Public private partnerships (PPPs) and procurement practices

The way in which public projects are procured has been roundly criticised. Companies that want to get work have to fill in a seemingly endless round of pre-qualification questionnaires, fork out for escalating tender costs, or get in on a framework that excludes smaller, younger companies, limiting competition. Prisk says he wants to reduce the regulatory burden and simplify procurement.

“We’re looking at how we can improve PPP by simplifying the pre-qualification process and stripping out waste.”

Mark Prisk, shadow construction minister

“We’re looking at how we can improve PPP by simplifying the pre-qualification process and stripping out waste,” he says. “At the moment, if a company wants to work on a school in Hertfordshire, it needs to pre-qualify in Hertfordshire. If it then wants to work in Essex, it needs to pre-qualify again.

The only way for companies to recoup the extra cost [of multiple pre-qualification] is by charging more. We want to strip this duplication out. Also, there is a requirement by most public authorities [for firms to have] three years’ fully accredited accounts. It restrains the competition and drives costs up. If businesses are just starting out, they can’t bid.”

Funding of major projects

The use of private finance in public infrastructure such as schools and hospitals has drawn criticism as the public sees construction companies profits at the expense of the taxpayer.

This is particularly the case in Scotland where the government has looked at issuing bonds to raise additional funding as part of its proposed alternative to private finance initiative Scottish Futures Trust.

“We want to make PPP efficient. We want the majority of the costs to be in the ground and rolling stock, not in fees and consultancy.”

Mark Prisk, shadow construction minister

The Conservatives are looking at how they can make private investment attractive to the public again. “We are looking at private funding arrangements − we want to make PPP as efficient as we can,” says Prisk. “We want the majority of the costs to be in the ground and rolling stock, not in fees and consultancy.”

Prisk sees the private sector playing an important role in the future of UK infrastructure, which would be encouraged to invest by the revenue stream it could then gain through mechanisms such as tolls.

“The private sector is a major player and the government needs to attract investment,” he says. “A future Conservative government will be determined to balance books, otherwise costs will soar. Interest on the balance borrowed currently exceeds the transport budget.”

Infrastructure Planning Commission

The Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) is an area in which the Conservatives run the risk of alienating their potential advocates in the construction industry. The IPC − which has a brief to oversee and speed up planning applications for major infrastructure projects such as power stations, roads, railways and airports − has the widespread support of the industry.

For too long, desperately needed projects have been snarled up in the planning process. Under the new structure, eight planning regimes are to be replaced by a single process, slashing the time taken to make decisions from up to seven years to under a year. The initiative is expected to save up to £300M a year.

The IPC will decide applications against a series of forthcoming national policy statements (NPSs). The first of these − covering nuclear power, renewable energy, electricity networks, fossil fuel generation, oil and gas infrastructure, ports and national road and rail networks − will be rolled out over the autumn.

“We think an elected member should make the decision. We think it’s a better deal.”

Mark Prisk, shadow construction minister

The remaining NPSs, on wastewater, hazardous waste, airports and water supply, will be released and designated between 2010 and 2012. However, the Conservative Party has criticised the commission as undemocratic.

“Labour thinks a quango should make the decision, but we think an elected member should make the decision,” says Prisk. “We think it’s a better deal to have public accountability.”

But the Conservative Party is in complete agreement that the system is due for an overhaul and even though it has vowed to axe the IPC if elected, it has said it would keep the NPS system.

“We do not wish to elongate the process,” says Prisk. “We want to speed up the process, but keep accountability. There’s an assumption that we would sweep away improvements, but we don’t want another [Heathrow Terminal 5] inquiry. Big projects like power stations need to speed up.”

One of the benefits of the IPC is that the decision makers are slightly removed from the main cut and thrust of voters and would not be so swayed about what would win or lose them votes. However, Prisk denies that the responsible minister would be affected in such a way. “If it speeds the system up, it mustn’t silence those affected by it,” he says.

“We are under pressure from the public to balance interest and to see if it’s in the strategic national interest.”

A voice for the construction industry

A common complaint is that there are too many fragmented councils, confederations, groupings and trade associations representing stakeholders in the construction industry and it does not promote its interests with the effectiveness it could. Prisk recommends building on inter-relationships and making joint representations.

“There needs to be a consolidation of voices in the industry,” he says. “If the voices aren’t unified they are weaker. If they come together, the voices are more powerful.”

“There needs to be a consolidation of voices in the industry. If the voices aren’t unified they are weaker. If they come together, the voices are powerful.”

Mark Prisk, shadow construction minister

The role of chief adviser on construction is welcome, says Prisk, but he believes the government has been dragging its heels over the appointment of this important position. “The government is both a regulator and procurer of construction and I think there is merit in a lead official for construction,” he says.

“However, the government announced it and then dithered about it for six months. It has not been clear about the function and authorities of the role.”

Prisk is clear about how he sees the role of adviser working: “The person should be a lead official between the government and the industry working beside the relevant minister. My instinct is that it needs to be someone with practical industry experience.

“When recommendations are brought forward, they will be looking at the right balance and depth of information.

It should principally be an administrative role with a strong relationship with the opposite number in local government. However, the principal area is to make sure they’re talking to industry in a co-ordinated fashion.”

Breaks for business

The Conservative Party has vowed to cut back spending in a bid to curb the growing budget deficit. However, it will also set some money aside to spur small businesses into action. It proposes a £50bn national loan guarantee scheme to underwrite bank lending to businesses and get credit flowing again as well as cutting the main rate of corporation tax.

“If we are elected we would wish to help by cutting corporation tax rates and also look at working on a simplified national loan scheme,” says Prisk. “Working capital is only available at a high price. As we start to turn out of the recession [we need access to capital].

“For new businesses, we want to help them grow and so we will be offering a payroll tax break for all employees up to the first 10.”

Mark Prisk CV

  • 1983 BSc Land Management, University of Reading
  • June 2001 Elected MP for Hereford and Stortford
  • 2002-2003 Shadow financial secretary to the Treasury
  • November 2004 Appointed a Conservative whip
  • December 2005 Shadow minister for enterprise, deregulation and competition, plus Cornwall

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