Build Back Better: programme for action or shovel ready soundbite?

Natasha Egan-Sjodin

Following MHP’s Build Back Better webinar, Account Director Natasha Egan-Sjodin explores the highlights from Tuesday’s discussion

Engine MHP - Build Back Better Webinar

With the Autumn Budget cancelled and the country’s economic hopes pinned to the latest tranche of COVID-19 support measures, the Government’s vision for a Build Back Better Britain fiscal bonanza have been stymied in the short term. However, the plan remains the same – “levelling up” infrastructure investment, promoting a clean green recovery, reforming our planning system and strengthening the union cheap amongst them.

In this context, this week Engine MHP bought together Jesse Norman MP, Financial Secretary to the Treasury; Rachel Sylvester, Political Columnist at the Times; Mark Littlewood, Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs; and Josh Murray, Global Director of Corporate Affairs at Laing O’Rourke to discuss how the current economic uncertainty and growing political tensions will impact Government’s long term goal to #BuildBackBetter.

Clearly the Government faces a huge challenge. The global coronavirus pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the UK economy, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak forced to borrow as much in the last six months as former Chancellor Gordon Brown did in ten years, and a national debt higher than GDP for the first time since 1961. Oh, how the tables have turned! But whilst the Conservative Government has focused heavily on reducing the country’s deficit in previous years, there is no hiding from the fact that emergency spending to support businesses and workers during the pandemic has been needed. A view that both Financial Secretary Jesse Norman and the Institute of Economics Affairs’ Mark Littlewood both agreed on; even the most hawkish fiscal Conservatives have conceded that getting through the pandemic needs to be a core priority of any future fiscal plans.

The Government’s response has taken many by surprise and at one point almost half of the country’s wages were being provided for or subsidised by the state; a feat many would not expect from a Conservative administration. As panellist Rachel Sylvester put it, the pandemic has further scrambled the party political traditions and expectations skewed by the Brexit debate, but the growing tensions between No10’s desire to spend to support the economy and No11’s nervousness over the growing national debt will be the central factor in determining how we set about recovering from this economic slow down. The decision to cancel the Autumn Budget and have a focused one-year Comprehensive Spending Review may seem sensible now, but for many in the Party and in business clarity over the long term is needed.

As our voice for business on the panel, Laing O’Rourke’s Josh Murray made that point clear. For many businesses, and particularly those in the infrastructure and construction sectors, the Government’s Build Back Better slogan is still just a shovel ready sound bite. The ambition to level up across the country was a backbone of the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto, but conflicts within Whitehall, the delays in delivering on commitments, and the lack of a firm fiscal plan is taking its toll on businesses. For Murray, an immediate plan for growth and delivery is needed in the short term; the long-term strategy for how we build back better, greener and quicker can wait for now.

So perhaps the key to unlocking progress on the Build Back Better agenda is some movement from Government. As Treasury Minister Jesse Norman noted, Government is due to publish a wave of strategies and reviews in the Autumn to drive forward the agenda. The much-awaited National Infrastructure Strategy is anticipated to strengthen ties between the private and public sector, setting out a roadmap for how they can jointly deliver the £600 billion of infrastructure investment set out during the General Election. Similarly, the Government’s green ambitions will be scrutinised in the Review of Net Zero at a time where Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged to deliver a green economic recovery from the pandemic. In the context of continued economic uncertainty, however, it remains to be seen whether these plans will provide enough assurance to businesses in the sector.

At its core the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the need to prioritise. Fiscal stimulus to support businesses and workers impacted by the virus has dominated the Government agenda for the best part of 2020, but in the longer-term Government needs to choose: is it building back better? Building back greener? Or building back quicker? For most, it seems that the need for speed is the prime concern.