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Getting a better deal by buying buildings in the private sector

Satire will never be better evidenced than in the headline 'Cock Robin Goes North' - the mischievous commentary on Cook's decision to take Gaynor to Scotland. Sensationalism and conciseness are also hallmarks of tabloid journalism, as in the brilliant '170 mph Schudini' headline following Michael Schumacher's escape of serious injury at Silverstone last Saturday.

In a more serious vein, the Sun also captured the public mood over health provisions in its 8 July edition: 'The patients don't care . . . whether public or private money pays . . . all they want is the best possible treatment,' stated the leader.

And there you have it: an admirable assessment of public opinion on the entire and long-standing state versus private-sector debate that reveals this country's ever-diminishing tolerance of ideological and political dogma.

Yet still, local-authority departments and hard-pressed unions fail to understand that they don't have any divine right to deliver public services even though their past stranglehold on service delivery has often been shown to disadvantage by both the provider and the recipient.

The old model of a caring state that can only deliver services through its own workforce has finally been discredited. Modern democracies are at last beginning to discover that the state can 'buy'services on behalf of its people from an efficient, open, and competitive market.

That is not, of course, to deny the great achievements of organisations like the nhs, nor the tremendous dedication of the large proportion of state and city employees.

But most people now believe that the economic and progressive way to deliver the state's services, even where they are provided free at the point of delivery to the client (such as in medicine), is through private enterprise.

In that way, hard work, skill and efficiency can be rewarded and that is the blunt instrument which motivates all but the most altruistic of our workers, whatever their level of contribution - be it hospital porter or station master, brain surgeon or train driver, estate manager or maintenance worker.

And so these arguments apply to architecture, both in terms of the interests of state-sector teams and of those in the private sector which, with increasing frequency, are supplanting them. And here it seems the jury has little to decide: the post-war legacy of badly designed and badly constructed buildings that we've inherited through the state system is generally appalling.

On the one hand, the robust clarity of older stock - for example, Alfred Waterhouse's University College Hospital, or the lcc schools - has been rudely and crudely compromised by the cheap and tacky alterations and additions of nhs and dfee architects. On the other, new buildings of lousy quality have often been delivered late and over budget. Even those few notable exceptions to that tendency could, it may well be argued, have been even more successfully delivered outside the state system.

Only last week I was inspecting a large school of 1960s vintage where, over a 30-year period, all windows, external doors, and spandrel panels have needed replacement. One roof has failed through rusted steel reinforcement, and all other flat roofs have been relayed due to widespread leaks. Then there are serious problems with solar-gain, massive energy inefficiency - all in all, a disgraceful legacy the entire construction industry should be well ashamed of.

The old state delivery system for such services seemed all too often to provide comfortable protection against the ghastly reality of such miserable performance. But it seems that when commercial accountability becomes the fundamental basis of the supply relationship, building consultants can quickly be persuaded against indifference to poor performance. The future will be different if we continue to allow market conditions to improve and hone performance while ensuring state control of the objectives against which the private sector will deliver. However, architects must take a much stronger lead in defining those objectives.

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