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letters PFI economy squeezes out the corner shop

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I had mixed feelings on reading Paul Hyett's recent article about buying better buildings in the private sector (AJ 15.7.99). I reminded myself that one in four new companies goes bust since private-sector investment is about the prioritisation of scarce resources. Paul dismisses post-war public architecture on skimpy evidence and in so doing ignores several generations of successful urban design and architecture.

It was the unusual British combination of high-quality professionalism and public-service ethic that produced consistently good (if not always inspirational) post-war public buildings and created experienced multi- professional teams that shared knowledge widely. (The glc, New Towns, county and city architects, departments etc). There were inevitably mistakes - the monumentalisation of family housing, the concentration on space provision in schools at the expense of robust construction standards - but these were political decisions rarely challenged by architects in private or public sectors. What is certain is that acquired knowledge and mistakes will in future be regarded as matters of commercial confidentiality.

In-house design was not a God-given right - it was a process determined by national and local political decisions. In some cases it was the result of political dogma - either to maximise the use of consultants or to carry out all work in-house. What must be understood is that it is not dogma that is determining the change of procurement methods; it is the effect of the public-sector borrowing requirement (psbr).

At present £100 billion out of our total £300 billion tax bill is spent on pensions, unemployment, housing benefit and the like - this is simply unsustainable. Private-sector financing does not count against psbr. The political decision is obvious.

The problem for most small practices in a pfi economy is that they are the equivalent of the corner shop, and builder-developer-funders the equivalent of the supermarket, and we all know what happened to the corner shop. Combine this with the fragmentation of public-sector procurement - standards that used to be determined by the county architect are now determined by 350 boards of governors - and the profession's influence is further marginalised.

I was never aware of an atmosphere of 'comfortable protection' as a chief architect. I had 60 elected members breathing down my neck, expecting quality buildings on time and within budget.

Paul suggests we should retain state control of the objectives - I would agree with that, for the alternative is that decisions will be profit driven rather than quality driven. That is not the way this government is going, however.

Colin James, RIBA Hon Treasurer

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