Public buildings and private finance? That's a formula for tomorrow's slums
Monday August 29, 2005
That's it for another year. The annual summer ritual is over, following last week's publication of the GCSE results. Are the pupils getting smarter or the papers getting simpler? Who knows? But even if the exams have not been dumbed down, the buildings in which they were sat certainly have been.
So here's a multiple-choice question for you. Is this the fault of (a) local education authorities, (b) the government or (c) the private finance initiative?
You get no marks if you answered (a), two if you answered (b) and a full five marks if you answered (c).The government spin on PFI is that it has harnessed private sector money and expertise to clear the backlog of work in the public sector without skimping on quality.
This is poppycock. At best, the schools, hospitals and prisons being built are depressingly mediocre - bog standard, to coin a phrase. At worst, they are the slums of tomorrow. There are people in government who know this and are worried about it.
At root, however, there is a tension between the pile 'em high and build 'em quick mentality that lies behind the PFI and Labour's historic commitment to quality design in the public sector that goes back to the days of municipal socialism and beyond. As William Morris once said: "Commerce has become of very great importance and art of very little."
Defenders of the PFI approach say it is a question of priorities. Quite rightly, they argue that there was an enormous backlog of work in 1997 after 25 years of neglect of the public realm and it was vital to get children out of portable classrooms and to prevent cancer patients being trundled for miles around the corridors of Victorian hospitals.
That's only part of the story, however. The PFI was a wheeze dreamed up by the Treasury for Kenneth Clarke when the Tories had run out of money in the early 1990s and were looking for a live-now-pay-later way of financing public infrastructure. But by the time Labour came to power in 1997, the PFI was clearly not working and could have been painlessly killed off.
Labour - perhaps to show it could now rub shoulders with the big wheels of finance - decided to breathe new life into the PFI and made it a flagship policy. What had been little more than financial sleight of hand under the Tories became an article of faith under Labour.
From the start, though, PFI proved controversial, particularly with the party faithful. Indeed, the PFI would probably be right up there with Iraq on the list of reasons why Labour's natural supporters are fed up with the government. As Peter Robinson of the Institute for Public Policy Research showed as long ago as 2000, there was never any fiscal rationale for the PFI. Gordon Brown could have borrowed the money in the traditional manner without breaking his financial rules, which explicitly allow the government to borrow for infrastructure projects.
It's true to say that most of the attention since 1997 has been on whether PFI projects really cost less - they don't - and whether they are good value for money - they're often not. Less attention, though, has been focused on the quality of what's being built, and that's a shame, because if the buildings are not as good as those that would have been built in the traditional fashion, that's a false economy.
Again, the government would probably say that it has few complaints from teachers and doctors about their new PFI buildings, but that's hardly surprising. The quality of design and the likely longevity of a building come some way down the list of priorities if you've been working in a draughty 100-year-old hospital where the roof leaks. An independent report prepared for the Building Research Establishment in 2002 said the design of PFI schools compared unfavourably with those procured in the traditional manner, adding that there was a "sparsity of finishes" and a "utilitarian aesthetic". Writing in the latest edition of Soundings, Ken Worpole, a writer on urban design, said the government had succeeded in transferring risk for projects to the private sector but only at the expense of "asset-stripping and de-skilling local authorities in their historic role as architects, planners and publicly accountable asset-holders. At the same time, PFI projects tend to produce bland design and build formulaic architecture that pays little or no attention to local circumstances or conditions."
It's easy to see why this should be. Traditionally built schools and hospitals start from a simple premise: what will be best for the pupils and patients. In PFI schools, design is only one part of the mix. Consortiums have to be careful that the designs are not so bad that their reputation suffers (the Jarvis syndrome), but they invariably go for the no-frills, low maintenance, economies of scale approach.
Paradoxically, there is more innovation and risk-taking in publicly procured projects than under the PFI; the bankers and the lawyers have a tick-box mentality. They will meet all the targets set for them but they are not in the slightest bit interested in trying anything original. Originality means risk, and risk can be expensive.
The picture is not universally bleak. Some local authorities have maintained their own design teams and have been able to eschew the PFI route. Hampshire county council, for instance, is seen by architects as a beacon of excellence for its in-house designed schools, and there are other authorities which have retained enough expertise to see when a PFI consortium is cutting corners. But this tends to be the exception rather than the rule. All that's left in Britain is the husk of a once proud municipal tradition that spanned left and right, and included millionaire philanthropists as well as town hall socialists. When it came to the public realm, there was agreement that beautiful buildings were not just desirable in themselves but contributed in a fundamental way to the creation of the good society.
The past 30 years have seen that tradition virtually disappear. Local government has been stripped of its powers and the values of the market have come to dominate the public sector. But behind all the talk of efficiency and delivery, we have witnessed the ascendancy of the philistines. It's not too late to act, and there are some encouraging signs that thought is being given to the issue of quality in public sector buildings.
In education, for instance, the government has announced a Â£2bn programme, Building Schools for the Future, that makes the right sort of noises. According to the No 10 website, the scheme will mean that within 15 years every child will be educated in a 21st century environment. The idea is that schools will be "rebuilt, remodelled or upgraded to provide flexible, inclusive, attractive learning environments that teachers want to teach in and pupils want to learn in. Schools will have high-quality facilities and integrated IT to help deliver personalised learning tailored to the needs, interests and aptitudes of every child". So is what the prime minister is calling "the greatest school renewal programme in British history" too good to be true?
According to architects it is, because of the fundamental incompatibility between the vision of Building Schools for the Future and the harsh reality of life under the PFI. The government sees no such incompatibility. It says a new body, Partnerships for Schools, will develop "innovative and effective models to streamline procurement" and create long-term public-private partnerships to deliver the government's vision.
If that sounds like PFI by any other name, that's because it is. "Partnerships for Schools will work with LEAs, helping them to select a private sector partner to form Local Education Partnerships that will bring together the best private sector expertise to construct, maintain and operate the new facilities, supporting headteachers in creating new schools and allowing teachers to focus on what they do best."
All this brings a hollow laugh from those with hands-on experience of life under PFI. There is currently much talk about the possibility of Labour urgently needing to find a way of reinventing itself in office after seeing its majority sliced in the election. But so far, that's all it has been: talk.
If the government is really ready to change course, there would be no better place to start than with a radical rethink of the PFI. Britain is an immeasurably wealthier country than it was when loving attention was paid to the detail of schools, health centres and public housing of the 1930s. The government is forever boasting about how the UK is now the fourth biggest economy in the world, so there is no obvious reason why we can no longer afford what was deemed essential for the public realm then.
Ministers argue that initiatives such as BSF are vital if Britain is to develop a workforce with the right skills and knowledge to meet the challenge of globalisation. They have backed that analysis with serious amounts of cash. The difficulty is that the PFI will frustrate, rather than help bring about, the government's lofty aims. If the architects were working for the schools rather than the money men, there would be a real chance of success. But that means breaking the habits of a lifetime and removing the financial and ideological shackles binding local government.