Surely efficiency savings have to be made by working with the supply chain: after all, the government has been saying just this for 10 years
Now that the experts have had time to read the smallprint of the Budget, it has become clear just how much trouble we’re in – and just how much belt-tightening and how many tax rises are going to be needed to stop a bad position sliding into catastrophe. For construction, the harder you look, the bleaker the picture appears. It’s clear that the UK’s fiscal deficits – £348bn over the next two years – are going to give us a Scrooge state by 2013/14, but what’s also becoming apparent is that the Exchequer is already applying the breaks by way of efficiency savings and spending reviews. So, highways maintenance contracts are to be tendered again to save £140m, the communities department is looking to make £400m by reprioritising and rephasing (that is, delaying) its programmes, and the list goes on.
No doubt it would be irresponsible for a government in this position not to cast a miser’s eye on its spending programmes. It’s natural, too, for construction to feel anxious about the future. But what’s making matters more disorientating are the mixed messages coming out of Whitehall: only a few weeks before the Budget, Gordon Brown talked about the £3bn being brought forward for public spending programmes, and Alistair Darling told us that the only solution was growth. At the same time, swaths of the Learning and Skills Council’s college renewal programme were put to the sword. Nobody can be against efficiency savings, but surely this has to be done by working with the supply chain: after all, the government has been saying just this for 10 years, and still is. But in practice we seem to have procurement by panic as councils and departments conveniently set aside frameworks and opt for the lowest tender – the most galling example so far being £3.1bn of prison work (page 13). The idea that we should go back to a lose–lose situation by forcing contractors to put in suicidal tenders, and return to the days when profits were made in the High Court, makes no sense. Is the government really prepared to throw away the gains we’ve accrued since the Egan report?
Another confusing factor is deciding whom to lobby. It’s a fairly safe bet that the Budget marked the end of the line for New Labour. This time next year we’ll be enduring a lengthy spending hiatus while trying to lip-read Cameron & Co. The likelihood is that the Conservatives will win a mandate to slash and burn: at their spring conference at the weekend they said that the NHS and overseas aid would be the only sacred cows. In the days before Tony Blair came to power in 1997, Nick Raynsford was listening, understanding and winning round architects, contractors and consultants alike. So far the Conservatives have shown little signs of engaging with the sector – possibly because they suspect (wrongly) that we don’t want to hear what they’ve got to say. That’s not really the way to get the best out of the UK plc’s biggest division. Austerity, yes; arrogance, no.
Not in front of the journalists
Who said Cabe doesn’t have teeth? It stepped in at exactly the right moment this week to scold the “extraordinary banality” of the design for the 2012 media centre’s broadcasting block. “We would go so far as to say that its presence would blight the Olympic legacy.” The press centre didn’t get off much better. We know the buildings have to be paid for out of the ODA’s budget after the commercial partner pulled out, and there’s no clear-cut legacy use at the moment. We know, too, that architecture is not the main point of the Games. But this is the centre where the world’s press gathers, and many of the journalists will have seen wedding marquees with more flair. There’s a line where pragmatism gives way to shoddy design, and this has crossed it.
Denise Chevin, editor