Labour’s chance to deliver its £19bn investment in housing, schools, hospitals and transport is rapidly evaporating. Whitehall officials are muttering that without spectacular acceleration in the rate of spending, only a fraction of the planned facilities will be open when Tony Blair goes to the polls in 2005-6. The first signs of panic were evident this week when the Cabinet Office was restructured under Sir Andrew Turnbull to concentrate on the “delivery of better public services”, and the spending review next month looks like stuffing even more money in the pipeline (see news).

All that cash is certainly giving investors faith in the industry’s future. The Construction Products Association calculates that, before an extra penny is allocated, public sector work will leap 7.6% a year between 2002 and 2004 (page 18). But these are just numbers. The CPA warns: “A number of areas of concern remain over the government’s ability to deliver.” No kidding. In housing, stock transfers have flopped, the £1bn Colchester barracks PFI is two years late, and only two PFI hospitals deals were signed in one nine-month period. It’s all so, so slow.

The reasons for delay – planning problems, shortages of client project managers and controversy over the PFI – are well rehearsed. But the real failure is one of leadership. When Sir Steve Robson was at the Treasury, Whitehall and the industry were driven into deals by wider political imperatives. But momentum has been lost since his departure. Is it any wonder that the billions pouring into the NHS are being siphoned off in doctors’ pay deals, such as the one giving 30-year-old consultants £78,000 a year? There aren’t enough alternatives coming from the capital works crew.

The penny must drop sooner or later, though, which may lead to a sudden deluge of tenders – there’s already talk of 21 PFI hospitals being let in 2003. If the industry can’t then handle the work, at least the politicians will be able to line up contractors as the fall guys. But there is still time (just) to avert unsavoury “bungling builder” headlines and save Blair’s bacon. The new-look Cabinet Office may sharpen Whitehall’s lacklustre approach to project management. But there’s also a case for a high-profile public services taskforce to get spending departments moving up through the gears. They’ll need a figurehead, of course, and it’s hard to think of anyone more suitable than that great hammer of the mandarins, Sir John Egan.

The labours of Livingstone
Not only is London out of all proportion to other UK cities, but its population has grown since 1989 at an ever accelerating rate. In his draft London plan, Ken Livingstone sets out to create 636,000 new jobs and 459,000 additional homes within 14 years (pages 20-21). The expanses of the Thames Gateway to the east are earmarked for the bulk of this capital growth, with other pockets of major development scattered here and there. Naturally, there are few catches. First, transport must precede development. Second, public subsidies for affordable homes must be raised. And third, the planning system has to get three times faster. Crack these problems, Kenneth, and the construction industry will erect a statue of you outside your GLA HQ – at cost.