From Brexit to Building Back Better: What’s Johnson’s Construction Legacy?


Boris Johnson’s tenure has been a tumultuous and historic time like no other. For much of that time, the prime minister rarely missed an opportunity to put on a helmet and head out to a construction site, as the industry he declared to build back better was rarely far from his plans. Ian Weinfass examines the legacy of its interactions with the sector.

Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2

In his first major speech in July 2019, Johnson committed his government to providing the Northern Powerhouse rail link between Manchester and Leeds.

The speech came shortly after he told parliament he had asked former Crossrail chairman Doug Oakervee to conduct a “brief six-week review” into the future of the HS2 project.

After what turned out to be seven months of uncertainty, during which a panel including prominent critics of the project was convened under Oakervee, Johnson committed the government to building all planned parts of the high-speed rail link , with Northern Powerhouse Rail to be developed at the same time.

The move drew praise from across the industry and saw coverage from Building News product in which he was made to look like Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Work duly began on HS2 later in 2020, resulting in civilian activity during the pandemic.

However, by the time the Integrated Rail Plan – a document requested by Oakervee to outline how the projects would be linked – was published in November 2021, the eastern part of HS2 had been removed and Northern Powerhouse Rail significantly downgraded.

At the time, a spokesperson for the high-speed rail group, whose members include Keltbray, Costain and Systra, said the U-turn was “significantly shaking confidence in the sector”.

Nevertheless, the biggest construction project in the UK in the first half of this century was finally launched in earnest under Johnson.

Make Brexit happen

The centerpiece of Johnson’s election campaign that secured an 80-seat majority for his party was his promise to withdraw the UK from the European Union, which was duly delivered during his tenure as prime minister.

From the start of 2021, this means that workers in EU countries are subject to the same immigration rules as those elsewhere in the world.

The move coincided with some of the highest vacancy rates in the sector in years, with London Mayor Sadiq Khan calling for a special temporary visa regime for the construction industry to ease shortages.

Johnson’s administration offered no such help to boost the numbers.

And despite pleas from quarters such as the Confederation of British Industry and the government’s own migration advisory committee, the Home Office under Priti Patel has rejected calls to add masons and bricklayers to the list of shortage occupations. This would relax some of the rules for these high-demand positions, allowing for additional overseas recruitment.

CBI chief executive Tony Danker also pointed to shortages of scaffolders, carpenters and welders. In September 2021, he said: “The government promised an immigration system that would focus on the skills we need rather than unlimited access to foreign labour. Yet here we have obvious, short-term skilled needs, but a system that can’t seem to meet them.

Getting through the pandemic

Just months after moving into Number 10, the global COVID-19 pandemic hit, causing unprecedented challenges for a modern administration — and a health scare for Johnson himself.

His conduct during the lockdown would ultimately be one of the things that led to his departure but – after initial uncertainty over the early lockdown rules – his government has been praised for the support it has given businesses.

His administration introduced furloughs, loan schemes, a suspension of wind-up orders and – after criticism the first time around – explicitly said construction work could and should continue when further lockdown measures were announced. in 2020 and 2021.

“While from a public health perspective there are probably concerns about the response to COVID, I think the way the Johnson government has responded to the crisis has been very strong. They have sought to protect businesses,” said said Civil Engineering Contractors Association chief executive Alasdair Reisner. NC.

Support for the construction sector has also become the centerpiece of its plans to “build back better”, to stimulate the economy and reinvigorate recovery from the shocks of the pandemic.

40 new hospitals

Johnson’s government has pledged to build 40 new hospitals by 2030 – a goal that has come under scrutiny since its inception, including counting expansions and facilities already nearly built (including two Carillion had begun to build) as “new”.

The day after his resignation speech, health body NHS Providers published a survey of hospital leaders which said two in five schemes were behind schedule, while half did not believe they had sufficient funding for jobs.

Although the final number may be less than indicated, NC last month highlighted how the program is already encouraging the adoption of modern methods of construction and collaboration in parts of the industry.

A bridge to nowhere

After plans for a garden bridge over the Thames and a floating airport in the estuary fell through and ultimately failed during his tenure as mayor of London, Johnson has had no shortage of vision for projects that make headlines when he proposed a bridge linking Northern Ireland with Scotland.

Touted as a potential way to increase “connectivity for people and especially those who make the Union stronger”, the concept drew political ridicule from the Scottish National Party and backing from Northern Ireland Democratic Unionists.

In late 2021, a feasibility study by Douglas Oakervee and Gordon Masterton concluded that the costs of a transport link were “impossible to justify”. The study found that a suspension bridge would cost £335bn, while a tunnel would be a cheaper alternative at £209bn. The undersea bridge or tunnel option would be the longest of its kind ever built.

Sir Peter Hendy, who oversaw Johnson’s wider Union connectivity review, said future technological and technical breakthroughs could one day make such a scheme possible, leaving the door open for an unlikely return to the idea at a later date.

Johnson’s defiant tone in preparing for his announcement and his resignation speech suggests the public might one day also consider the possibility of the unlikely return of the former prime minister himself.


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