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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)

  • Well said Paul, and today Bob Maguire was added to the souls passing over the bridge. So many...

    In the early years of this century people looked down on PFI, but we did say at the time it should be more than to the DES standard, but the hairy arsed builders were running the show and it was work, and where else would have those kids have gone to school? As usual, the money guys were rubbing their hands!

    If we can get over this hump we will adopt, adapt and improve.

    Brexit! Come what May?

    PS Paul, We still have to meet and discuss what these Aggregated Municipal Green Bonds are going to do for us?

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  • I'll be prepared to consider welcoming fracking in the UK when a 12 month demonstration project has been completed under central London to prove how incredibly low risk it is.

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  • There isn’t any shale under London.

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  • For Ian Goulty - incredibly low risk compared with digging multi storey basements under Georgian terraces (or even that shallow Eurostar tunnel under Islington).

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  • This is a very strange defence of the fundamentally flawed building procurement method of PFI, in the light of the vast weight of independent and objective evidence that has amassed against it. The design and construction quality of PFI buildings is so poor that they are unlikely to last 30 years. Let us not forget that Grenfell was a PFI procurement as were the collapsed schools in Edinburgh. I suggest that this organ stops defending the indefensible.

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  • Columnists write in a personal capacity.
    Poor construction quality and inadequate fire design can scarcely be said to have started with PFI. My point is that there are benefits to be had from long-term repair and maintenance contracts which cannot be scrapped for short-term political reasons.
    I don't think this is an unreasonable point and of course such contracts could be entered into with or without PFI.

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  • I would suggest that viewed in the context of 40 years of neoliberalism, deregulation and privatisation, the motivation for PFI was not to ensure ‘long term repair and maintenance contracts’. Beyond lining private pockets at vast and exhorbitant expense to the taxpayer for a generation. Most of these PFI assets are now sold into a secondary market, which combined with the likely collapse of their original contractors (eg Carillion), does not bode well for their ‘long term repair and maintenance’. Perhaps we can learn something from the PFI (and flammable cladding) debacle, rather like we did from the Great Fire of London, which ushered in robust building regulations, to counter ‘poor construction quality and inadequate fire design’.

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  • For Paul Finch and Robert Wakeham, I don't give a dam if there is any shale under London. I want to see the Government and those who would profit from this be prepared to risk damaging the capital and all the money and wealth that sits within it to prove they are prepared to share the same risks as areas and populations being fracked. If it is very low risk then I can't see the problem in taking this step to prove it. Sorry if this isn't to your liking but I'm afraid its a case of if you wouldn't be prepared to do it under your own house you shouldn't expect to do it under someone elses.

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  • My house is above the Northern Line.

    Nobody is ‘fracking populations’ whatever that may mean.

    A sense of perspective is always useful.

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  • Rather distressing to hear Nick Grimshaw’s misunderstanding of the original fire strategy at Grenfell, on Newsnight last week. He expressed surprise at a single staircase in a compartmentalised building. Subsequently allegedly compromised by the flammable PFI refurbishment overcladding. He was also gibbering about investing half our national wealth in Lagos for some reason. The interviewer was having a good laugh, but it is no way to represent a profession.

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