Former Tory donor Wates is now ‘agnostic’ on politics

The chief executive of Wates has said the company is now politically “agnostic” and will not make any donations in the run-up to the general election.

Wates gave £450,000 to the Conservative Party between 2001 and 2017, according to The Guardian – which also reported in 2018 that then chairman (and current board member) James Wates attended Conservative Party donor functions with privileged access to then prime minister Theresa May and her cabinet.

But in an interview on Tuesday (26 March), Eoghan O’Lionaird told Construction News: “We haven’t paid a political donation in years and years, we’re not doing so at the moment and nor would I anticipate that we would go back to doing that.

“We are actually agnostic to which colour of government we have [after the election]. We work very closely with the current government and there are challenges.

“We recognise the challenges [in politics] and we’re very keen to support the government of the day. Should governments change, I’m sure we will support new governments in exactly the same way.”

The UK general election is due to be held by January 2025, with polls currently predicting that Labour will sweep into power.

O’Lionaird said the company would especially like to see a change in housing policy, adding that it is an area “that both major parties – the Conservatives and Labour – have said will be a major focus”.

He said: “We think there is a need for change in regards to government policy on housing and specifically in regard to two things.

“First of all, a changing planning regime: we believe that we need to go back to the local authorities and county councils and require of them that they have plans [and] design codes that are in place so that when a developer wants to build there will be a presumption of approval. This will be hugely beneficial for the market.

“Secondly, for housing in local authorities, there has to be a different funding approach. Many of the local authorities are very stretched from a financial point of view [and] the central government has got to find a way to re-fund social housing construction.”

O’Lionaird was speaking to CN as Wates published its annual results for 2023. The family-owned contractor posted a revenue above £2bn for the first time in its 127-year history, while pre-tax profit increased by 43 per cent to £44.9m.

Elsewhere in the interview, O’Lionaird said market conditions had improved and construction is now recovering from a very high rate of insolvencies and the difficulties caused by Covid, interest-rate rises and rapid inflation.

“At the risk of sounding like Bilbo Baggins, I think the worst is behind us. Things have improved. Inflation was in strong double digits a year ago, it’s now come down to single digits and, in some cases, material costs have reversed and have fallen in price.

“Interest rates are easing. We anticipate interest rates will further ease through [to] the end of this year, and that no doubt will have a positive impact on the industry. Also, we are hopeful the rate of insolvencies has slowed.”

O’Lionaird added: “It was a torrid time for many, many supply-chain partners last year. We have done our best, we believe, to support all of those partners through the hard times and we’re hoping that we put the worst behind us.”

O’Lionaird joined Wates as chief executive in February 2023. For more information on his outlook and plans for the company, read CN’s in-depth interview with the executive here.

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