Sensible but it won’t happen

Ministers must avoid throwing billions of pounds at infrastructure projects to create a stimulus for the post-Covid economy, according to a construction industry veteran.

Keith Clarke, the former chief executive of engineering firm Atkins, says the Government can create a better legacy for the construction industry with investment upgrades to schools, hospitals and other projects.

Not that we particularly want to create a legacy for the construction industry, we want to deploy our resources to provide the greatest benefit for us.

But that this is best done by spiffing up what we’ve got rather than creating anew has merit. The problem being that politics doesn’t work that way. The benefit, the incentive, to the politician who signs off on it is the cutting of the red ribbon, the laudatory press pieces. Which sorting out the sewers, maintaining the schools, doesn’t produce. Something new – a new train set – does. So, we get more new stuff and not enough maintenance and upgrading.

That’s just how the incentives work.

22 thoughts on “Sensible but it won’t happen”

  1. It does work backwards though. The politicians went for lockdown because they were terrified of pictures of patients dying in hospital corridors.

  2. Is there much point in improving schools without sorting out the teachers? Likewise hospitals/NHS.

    Let’s get £10bn wiped off the foreign aid budget for starters. £100bn saved over a decade with no impact on Britain.

  3. It also means that it’s not designed for the long-term. Because to them, they don’t see it as a long-term asset in the way that capitalists do. Capitalists want an asset in 5 years.

    It’s why Stirling Prize winners are rarely built by capitalists. It’s won by libraries, bridges, museums, schools and theatres. Lovely curved roof, circular rooms? Smashing, but that means a load of complex maintenance on that, plus all your glass panels are going to be non-standard shape. Oh, and your building is probably useless for any purpose than the one it’s currently assigned to.

    One of the reasons that I’m rather a fan of PFI is that it creates long term buildings. Schools get built with function an low-maintenance in mind.

  4. Make-do-and-mend leaves us with some horrible buildings though.

    My local hospital is in a constant state of flux: partition walls get built one year, knocked down the next; windowless rooms are created, toilets are squashed into awkward spaces. There’s a whole department on the lower ground floor – what would have once been storage bins – with no natural light at all. It’s an unpleasant environment for staff and patients alike.

    I say demolish the lot and rebuild anew. Totally agree with BoM4 on PFI.

  5. The problem with PFI was that a modest experiment under Major was turned into a wild extravagance under Blair/Brown.

    So I understand: open to correction of course.

    The trouble is that the very civil servants who are not fit to run a business are not fit to outsource it either.

    It recently occurred to me that of the clever students I knew as an undergraduate not one expressed any interest in becoming a civil servant. I’ll grant you that my circle was biased towards Science, Medicine, and Law, but still. Not one. Maybe they had an intuitive understanding of the incentives they would have faced if they’d pursued that line of work.

  6. @Andrew M

    The partition walls might not be such a bad idea… Any new hospital is going to end up reconfigured many times over in its lifetime, to deal with changes in technology and services offered. I understand that when a new hospital is designed, part of the spec is to build in flexibility so that internal spaces can be rearranged as required. So perhaps even a new build might come with partition walls.

  7. BoM4 mentioned yesterday there’s over 300 free schools up and running, and hundreds more planned. I had no idea, assumed this had quietly withered on the vine when Gove left Education.

    Got to be more promising than spaffing more cash on shiny new academy buildings, no?

  8. I note that Andy Palmer of Aston Martin got the chop today. Shares lost 98% value since raising 4bn 2 years ago. Please Please no one with public money try to “Save” Aston Martin.

  9. @BoM4: “It’s why Stirling Prize winners are rarely built by capitalists. It’s won by libraries, bridges, museums, schools and theatres. Lovely curved roof, circular rooms? Smashing, but that means a load of complex maintenance on that, plus all your glass panels are going to be non-standard shape.”

    A delightfully cynical architect of my acquaintance once remarked to me that you can’t win a major architectural award unless the roof leaks when it rains. “You’ve not pushed the envelope enough.”

  10. @MBE,

    I accept that being able to change things around is important. Douglas Adams touched on this in Mostly Harmless (“But what if we want to have the windows open?” / “You won’t want to have the windows open with the new Breathe-O-Smart.”). It happens in the corporate world too: individual offices gave way to cubicles, then open plan, then hot-desking; the next big thing was going to be “huddle rooms”, but Coronavirus will probably reset the trend back to padded cubicles. But sometimes things change too far beyond their original design, and it’s better to start afresh rather than trying to squeeze one more life out of an ancient design. The Palace of Westminster is a prime example: it’s notorious for being ill-suited to modern needs, even though its fundamental purpose hasn’t changed. Personally I’d knock it down and start again, Grade 1 listed status be damned.

  11. Hallowed Be,

    £4bn into Aston Martin? WTF? I think we’ve had more years with global pandemics than profitable years of A-M since they were founded.

  12. @ dearieme
    Yes. Most (I think, certainly many if not most) of the cleverest students I knew when an undergraduate became academics; of those definitely less clever than I can only think – off the top of my head – of two or three(one of whom “only” got an Exhibition) who became university lecturers; among those cleverer, I can think of none who chose to become civil srvants.
    Will Hutton told me that he *failed* the Civil service exam, which is why he became a salesman in the City: I remember this because he then added that he assumed that I, at the time a young Actuary, had also failed it: I was so offended by this insult that I could not manage a reply that would not have had me dragged into the CIO’s office for a lecture.

  13. Andrew M.
    Personally, I think I would move the politicians out of Westminster to an unglamorous city on the provinces. It would be cheaper, boost an unfashionable local economy and give the pols and their media parasites a glimpse of life outside the bubble.

    The Houses of Parliament could then become a popular tourist attraction.

  14. @Hallowed Be

    My prediction is Mercedes will buy Aston Martin. Cars are already a body with AMG-Merc engines & Gearboxes. Can’t see Cosworth wanting to buy despite doing new V6 & V12 for Valkyrie

  15. Spending extra on ‘infrastructure’ as stimulus seems the same as paying workers dig holes.

  16. A delightfully cynical architect of my acquaintance once remarked to me that you can’t win a major architectural award unless the roof leaks when it rains. “You’ve not pushed the envelope enough.”

    There’s a (very good, if you’re interested in that sort of thing) series on Railway Architecture currently showing on the Yesterday channel. Last week it covered the new funicular in Innsbruck, with stations by the starchitect Zaha Hadid (they look like all her buildings if you’re familiar – organic flowing shapes, in this case covered in glass). There were several architects slobbering over them – it was left to the poor old station manager to point out that the open structure allows the snow* to enter and they have to close half the concourse in winter.

    * Little known fact: it snows quite a bit in Innsbruck.

  17. I suspect that every Facilities’ manager of a Zaha Hadid building must be in a state of nervous collapse after about 6 months. They are just not designed or equipped to handle changing weather conditions

  18. A delightfully cynical architect of my acquaintance once remarked to me that you can’t win a major architectural award unless the roof leaks when it rains. “You’ve not pushed the envelope enough.”

    Scottish Parliament £20m >>> £40m >>> £400m Parliament building. Annual maintenance costs spiralling out of control

    * Little known fact: it rains, snows, windy & cold quite a bit in Edinburgh

    @Gamecock

    UK Tata’s JLR is begging for a handout, as is UK Tata Steel

  19. “UK Tata’s JLR is begging for a handout, as is UK Tata Steel”

    Sounds like a good business plan. Use the bailout money to buy A-M. Then beg for a handout for A-M.

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