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'The large-scale Lottery-funded cultural project is an endangered species'

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Rab Bennetts fears the end of the road for huge cultural projects could lead to the long-term loss of hard-to-replace expertise

Last Friday’s handover of our Royal Shakespeare Theatre to the Client ushers in a period of technical fit-out leading up to final completion in just a few months’ time. In all likelihood, it also presages the end to a golden era of major cultural projects and a sense of apprehension about what is to follow. 

At a time when school projects are being axed by the hundreds, large-scale housing is failing to find bank finance (despite the evident demand) and the private sector is far from certain about making capital investments, matching funding for grant-aided cultural projects has also been well and truly scuppered by the recession, as the investment profiles of altruistic companies and benefactors alike have been decimated.

In consequence, the large-scale Lottery-funded cultural project is an endangered species and, in the present economic circumstances, it’s hard to see where the next generation of British ‘grand projets’ will come from.  As with previous periods of austerity, the next period of architecture may well be characterised by an absence of notable new buildings, although there is of course much to be said for smaller-scale, less ambitious refurbishments and sound maintenance.

This cessation of major projects across several sectors simultaneously can only mean deep trouble for the design and construction industry.  Why is it that successive governments fail to see that the peaks of this huge industry are steeper and the troughs both deeper and longer than any other?  During the last major recession in the early ‘90s, more than half a million people were lost from the construction industry, many never to come back.  Whilst most sectors felt that they had emerged from recession within a couple of years, it was not until 1997 that the industry felt in better shape.  Today’s position feels comparable in many ways, with talk of the recession ending for some markets, while construction is still spiralling downwards.

If history repeats itself and another half million design and construction employees are once more added to the dole queue, where will the economy be then?  Quite apart from the potential ‘double-dip’, the permanent loss of skills will make it more difficult to retain high standards when things finally get moving again.

The fact that the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has been handed over on time and on budget, by a huge team of highly experienced designers, construction managers, specialist contractors and many others, owes much to the collective skills that have been honed over more than a decade of consistent economic growth.  The prospect of all that expertise being dispersed and possibly lost by recession is more serious, perhaps, than the short-term absence of new buildings themselves.

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