The procurement of school and hospital buildings by government – how the contracts for their design and construction are drawn up, and how the buildings are paid for – sounds like the driest of subjects, of interest only to professional bean counters.
Most people would assume the massive investment in flagship health and education buildings is simply good news, right?
But these buildings are, substantially, being procured through the government’s PFI (Private Finance Initiative) and PPP (Public-Private Partnership) schemes.
It is a measure of the sophistication of the electorate that a recent BBC poll, conducted in the run-up to the Scottish elections on 3 May, put the need to “ensure that all state schools and hospitals are built and run by public bodies rather than private companies” at the top of a list of 25 policy issues.
The ability of ordinary people to smell out the democratic deficit at the heart of these initiatives is heartening.
I am an architect, and until recently was deputy chair of Architecture and Design Scotland, the Scottish Executive’s “independent” advisor on the built environment.
In this role I chaired “design reviews” for scores of new school projects that were so poor that I despaired for the lives of the children whose education would be blighted by them.
I’m not talking about obscure design issues, but about classrooms, halls and libraries with little or no natural light, being built at a time when we can measure the increase in educational attainment that good levels of daylight bring.
I’m talking about lousy playgrounds and buildings with poor connections to the communities the schools are meant to serve.
And I’m talking about buildings devoid of imagination, inspiration and joy being built for those who deserve these things most.
The construction industry knows that the PFI and PPP processes are fundamentally flawed.
Study after study has shown the process to be inherently wasteful, and the buildings it produces to be more expensive, taking longer to build, and to be of significantly lower quality than those built directly with public funds.
Given all this it is clear that PFI and PPP should never be applied to this type of building project, and that these schemes should have been ended long ago.
But the government sees within them the chance for some quiet privatisation.
Alongside all the drawbacks, the chancellor knows that getting private consortia of banks and large construction companies to build and maintain schools and hospitals reduces his public sector borrowing requirement.
But it’s a false economy.
The private sector cannot borrow money as cheaply as government, and the system’s inefficiencies and need for profit has to be factored in too. The payback puts the public in hock for decades and adds greatly to the overall cost.
Much work is going into trying to improve these processes. But while the buildings produced thus far are so poor that “improvement” is achievable, the concentration on improvement masks the fundamental flaw at the heart of the schemes.
Most people in my industry don’t want to face that fundamental flaw – after all, there is a river of money flowing towards them – but those voters who were polled can see it clearly.
Any commissioning body – whether public or private – can be competent or less so, well briefed or badly briefed, experienced or inexperienced.
What is fundamental is that in building a school or a hospital, a public body’s primary responsibility is to the community they serve. It is therefore important to get the best possible building for the money.
But a private consortium’s primary responsibility – quite properly – is to their shareholders. Their concern therefore, is to spend as little as they can get away with on the building and its maintenance, in order to maximise their shareholder’s profits.
Even under explicitly Thatcherite policies, the British consensus that the state provides health and education was not so seriously undermined as it is being now.
This is the democratic deficit at the heart of the process. From it, all the costs, inefficiencies and bad design flow.
The government responds that it is local authorities that apply these processes. In the 1960s the government made it easy for them to borrow money for slum clearance and the building of tower blocks.
Today it makes it hard for authorities to take routes other than their preferred one. They also say in their defence that this is an innovative way to raise money for desperately needed resources.
But in the end, the payback is inflated, the quality poor, and the educational and care environment degraded.
We must put the quality of education our children receive, and the quality of care our sick receive, back at the heart of how we build for them.
While the public are clear about the responsibilities they wish the state to take, none of the “major” parties reflects the public’s concerns. Their lack of vision, gumption and care for democracy is startling.
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