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Dismiss PFI if you will – at least the repairs get done

Paul Finch

At the very least, PFI ensured the maintenance of public sector buildings, writes Paul Finch

Last weekend’s Sunday Times detailed the worrying shortfall in repair and maintenance spending in major UK hospitals, with an estimated bill of £3 billion coming our way. The three biggest problems are in London, needless to say; but then if you allow an unplanned population increase of 30 per cent in two decades, what do you expect? Unsurprisingly, funds earmarked for capital spending have been diverted into keeping essential medical services going. 

If it wants to supplement this gloomy story, the Sunday Times could look at the situation in relation to schools, where a similar story of maintenance underfunding would rapidly become apparent. The post-1945 saga of public spending on welfare-state buildings is one of consistent ignoring of the basic laws of building: things get worn out and have to be replaced.

If you don’t plan for this and, even worse, if you don’t act in time, you will be saddled with horrendous bills far in excess of estimates based on cloud-cuckoo thinking. The BBC overspend on rebuilding the EastEnders Queen Vic stage set is, as they say, the tip of an iceberg.

So all the savants who have dismissed PFI as a suitable procurement system might ponder one of its most useful attributes: the requirement for consortia to maintain buildings in a proper condition for the period of their ownership (up to 30 years). When the buildings are handed back to the public sector, they have to be in a state comparable to their post-snagging condition in the second year of their operation.

It is true that you pay a price for this, and critics say that the price is too high. Nevertheless, it is a sorry fact that governments always skimp on essential repair and maintenance of the public estate because it is electorally more popular to spend money on the new and the demonstrable – for example the pre-PFI hospitals mentioned above. 

It is a sorry fact that governments always skimp on essential repair and maintenance

One can add that this temptation also afflicts the owners of private apartment blocks – it is not just a public-sector condition. In all cases, it is the consequence of people who know nothing about buildings being put in charge of decisions that require exactly that knowledge.

Manchester could do even better

The draft spatial strategy out for consultation on the future of Manchester is a largely admirable document – ambitious and considered. 

Two criticisms might be made of it: first, the idea that the city can only house its growing population by building 50,000 homes in the green belt. The city is full of vacant and under-used sites – and is also well-stocked with good architects who know what to do with them. Intensify, don’t spread.

Second, Manchester and the Northern Powerhouse need a huge wave of investment funding. That funding is sitting on their doorstep – or rather underneath it. Shale gas could be the cheap energy source that will do for the North what oil did for Aberdeen and Scotland.

Fracking, despite propaganda suggesting gigantic blasting, is a process by which rocks are ‘fractured’ to a minute extent; specifically, the dimensions of a grain of sand (honestly).

Why look a gift horse in the mouth?

Too many funerals

A packed chapel for David Dunster’s humanist funeral last week was a reminder of the enduring power of education to affect lives for the better. In David’s case that benefited students from Kingston, the Bartlett, South Bank and Liverpool, taught over four decades. 

I couldn’t help thinking about other recent premature deaths, including Zaha Hadid, Will Alsop, Francis Golding, Moira Gemmill and Alan Davidson. All have left legacies based on what one might describe as critical optimism. Not to be squandered. 


Readers' comments (13)

  • Paul Finch is so wrong about 'fracking'. If this was located in the south-east it would never be allowed, by Civil Servants, the public, the media etc.
    Only because it's 'Up North' is it being held up as a fantastic solution. Please stick to writing about things you know about and not adopting a patronising attitude to people who have to deal with the impact of these decisions.

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  • it is not a 'fantastic solution', it is a geological fact of life. Communities lucky enough to benefit from accidental advantage should relish it, rather than spitting on their luck and moaning about another accidental group -- people who were born in the 'south'.

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  • Fracking is an environmental catastrophe and there is extensive evidence of the damage it does from the USA, which warn us what a distaster this would be for the N-W. Hydraulic fracking is bad enough, but the addition of toxic chemicals pollutes the water supply to the extent that it is flammable. Not to mention unpredictable seismic events that damage building fabric and infrastructure. The pursuit of fracking in the UK is madness, particularly when we should be pursuing a low to zero carbon future, with no further need for fossil fuels.

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