The tiresome ideological struggle over the PFI resurfaced at the Labour conference (see news).
Once again, unions are insisting that it delivers poor quality buildings and a two-tier public sector workforce. The government, which has adopted a Trappist marketing strategy for its policy, is saying little. It may offer the brothers some concessions on pay and conditions, but mercifully, there's no suggestion that it will dump the PFI and return to the good old days of chronic overspending and Treasury overstretch, as dewy-eyed unionists would wish.

From the agitprop fed to national newspapers by the unions, you might think the PFI had been a disaster. But for every leaky operating theatre we have another, state-of-the art, facility. And while the unions may be right to say that future generations will be saddled with huge bills for edifices they no longer require, it's just as likely that the maintenance charges for well-specified PFI buildings will be far lower than crumbly old 20th-century hospitals. To date, barely 450 PFI projects have been completed; the PFI will account for only 11% of the £41.7bn of public investment in 2003/04. To axe it now would be the construction equivalent of sacking a football manager after half-a-dozen games and a record of three wins, two defeats and a draw.

This is no time for reflection: this is the time for action. Most people believe public services are deteriorating. The CPA's latest spending survey shows that only 19 of the 31 hospitals scheduled to start between 2001 and 2003 have done so (page 19). No wonder exasperated Kier boss Colin Busby implored Whitehall to "conform to its own timetables". That's not to say that the PFI must stop evolving. The seven-figure tendering costs must be slashed – perhaps by partnering with one firm after a truncated bidding round. Designs must improve, and specifications changed to reflect outcomes, such as healthier patients and happier schoolchildren, rather than outputs, such as cleaner toilets. But there must be no turning back on the fundamentals. When the time comes to assess whether it was a good deal for taxpayers, at least Labour can say – with construction's commercial markets moribund – that there was never a better time to buy buildings.

A career open to all talents

Twenty-six-year-old Georgia Elliott-Smith – featured on the cover of Sitelife – is exactly the kind of business leader the industry needs – and doesn’t have. The average construction graduate is likely to have dismal A levels, three years at a poor further education college, and scant aptitude or motivation. No wonder Peter Rogers bemoans the dearth of good project managers: the industry is reaping what it sows. Things are starting to change, however. Last week, education secretary Charles Clarke challenged the industry to help produce better college courses (page 13), and the CITB-backed group, Accelerating Change in the Built Environment, yesterday published a framework for how that can be achieved. Role models like Elliott-Smith are vital, too. Construction’s “a lot younger and more dynamic than people think”, she says. If only that was true.