The vacuum-cleaner magnate and engineer talks to Richard Vaughan about his axed Bath academy and why he’s appalled by the UK’s planning system
Britain’s most famous engineer is explaining his process of invention. ‘Everything starts with a problem,’ says James Dyson, leaning back in his chair.
The energy-hungry hand drier, for instance, presented Dyson with one such problem, so he invented the Airblade in 2006, which dries hands faster and uses 80 per cent less energy.
But last week, Dyson came up against a problem that even he couldn’t solve. His plans for a £56 million Dyson School of Innovation and Design in Bath were scrapped after the government pulled its funding. Some things, it seems, also end with a problem.
‘It’s disappointing,’ he says. ‘But I’m most disappointed for the children of Bath. I had hoped to open a school that encouraged the study of engineering. It’s a great pity for Bath.’
The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) withdrew its support for the school after a public inquiry was called following a flood-risk report for the site by the Environment Agency. The DIUS has chosen instead to fund an ‘entrepreneur’ school in Buckinghamshire, backed by Peter Jones, star of the BBC2 TV series Dragons’ Den.
‘It doesn’t surprise me that the other scheme was put ahead of our school,’ says Dyson. ‘Engineering is always in the background, or not understood.’
Dyson had pledged to invest £12.5 million of his foundation’s money in the cancelled school. He had already spent four years and £3.5 million on securing planning permission for the Wilkinson Eyre-designed project.
Locating the school on the site of a derelict crane factory, Wilkinson Eyre and engineer Buro Happold had proposed to demolish the ‘condemned’ industrial buildings, while incorporating the facade of the existing Grade II-listed Newark Works building, previously occupied by crane-builder Stothert and Pitt.
To avoid the flood risk, Buro Happold suggested raising the site by 2m. This meant ‘the centre of Bath would have to be under 5m of water to flood’. Planning was secured in the spring, only to be ‘called in’ last August. The decision left Dyson exasperated.
‘I’m appalled when it comes to the planning system,’ he says. ‘Funnily enough, I didn’t mind the fact that it took us four years, because that’s the democratic process and everyone had their say, and [planning] was passed.
‘What seems odd is that it then got bogged down, and they called a public inquiry. The inquiry would have been utterly pointless, a waste of time, a waste of money, a waste of everything. It’s not the third runway at Heathrow, it’s a school.’
Dropping the school may appear to be another success for the heritage bodies that guard Bath from development, but Dyson disagrees. He claims that Bath is no longer just a city of ‘pastiche’ and ‘fake Bath stone’. His school was backed by the Bath Preservation Society and English Heritage.
‘Schemes will always be more difficult in Bath, but they are building Chris Wilkinson’s bus station and a glass extension to the Holburne Museum,’ he says.
‘They are building modern architecture in Bath. They are moving forward,’ he adds.
Instead of heritage groups, Dyson’s ire is directed towards central government, particularly the planning system.
‘It is a blight on our progress,’ says Dyson. ‘Any building is always much more expensive because of it. We’ve built in Malaysia and we’re about to start building in China and it’s cheaper. [The planning system] turns England into a very expensive place to do things.’
Wilkinson, who designed the school, believes the project was subject to ‘delaying tactics’ by the Bath planning department.
‘They knew that there was a time limit on the government funding,’ says Wilkinson. ‘I hope the people responsible for the delays feel remorse, because Bath has missed out on a great school.’
Dyson’s philanthropic attempt to build an engineering and technology school comes from his concern about the diminishing state of Britain’s engineering prowess. According to Dyson, Britain has 37,000 empty places in engineering departments at universities, whereas China and India produce up to 500,000 engineering graduates in total each year.
‘We can’t pretend that we’re very inventive, ingenious British people, and we file more patents than anyone else,’ says Dyson. ‘None of that is true any longer.
‘It is worrying,’ he adds. ‘It’s our technology, exports and manufacturing that has made us great and kept us a country that pays its way. Our trade is about five to six billion in the red every month. Economically, it is vital for us to engineer and manufacture things.’
Dyson’s words have an added weight in the current economic climate. Now, it would seem that bolstering the manufacturing and engineering sectors would be beneficial for the UK.
‘These are difficult times,’ he says. ‘But I started my vacuum-cleaner company in 1992, right in the middle of the last recession. You can get going with very little money if you try hard enough.’
We talk about how the imminent recession could be a chance for the sustainability agenda to take hold. With increasing fuel prices and global financial turmoil, people will be looking for efficiency.
‘A recession is a good place at which to start, because people start to reappraise everything. Especially now – people are thinking about fuel economy, the low use of electricity and purchase prices,’ says Dyson.
‘I’m optimistic. It gives us engineers and scientists the opportunities to develop water and energy-saving devices. Now we can seduce people with things that offer something more efficient.’
I ask whether he thinks that mankind can design its way out of climate change.
‘Yes, absolutely,’ he says. ‘I’m not just saying that because I’m hugely optimistic. I’m looking at the new materials, higher conductivity, and so on.’
Dyson delves into his bag like an eager schoolboy and pulls out two electric motors, one of which is a third of the size of the other.
‘We have spent 12 years developing electric motors,’ he says. ‘The big one is 50 per cent efficient and provides 30,000rpm. The smaller one is 84 per cent efficient and gives 102,000rpm.
‘It’s our responsibility to design things that use less electricity. Man made the problem, so man has to solve it.’