Whitehall's mates in construction aren't too hopeful. They've seen the end-of-year reports detailing its underspending, and they've witnessed at first-hand its miserable attempts to solve the difficult sums of the PFI. And the Tube, the West Coast Main Line, and hospital pay have proved beyond its capabilities. Forget 10 years. It'll take more like 50 to make the grade in transport and health.
The government is, however, showing a little more promise in education. Schools don't have the same financial complexity as rail or the incendiary politics of health. The challenge lies in the sheer volume of work. Ministers want to refurbish every secondary school within a decade, at a cost of £30-45bn. Can Whitehall cope? Not without the right contractual framework, and not without commitment from the industry, that's for sure. In theory, the industry's capacity worries should ease after the collapse of the London office market and the retrenchment of retailers (see news) – but will commercial specialists have the skills to carry out top-class school refurbishment?
Another problem is that the PFI generally – and the LIFT approach of clustering projects in particular – favours large outfits. Jarvis & Co can't do it all, though. Traditionally, many of the best designers and builders in education have been tiny. One of Whitehall's key tasks is to harness this expertise. It must ensure that contracts are not too large, encourage joint ventures between small architects and builders, and coach those firms to sell their wares harder to clients. As Whitehall has belatedly realised, time is running out to complete the course work ministers have set. And voters at the 2005 election will mark its performance far more accurately than the average A level exam board.
A horrific choice
Ministers' decision to immunise 500 military and medical personnel against smallpox is not the only sign of the alert over bioterrorism. District surveyors who issue safety certificates to stadiums are instructing them to lock fans in if there is an attack (see news). Imprisoning thousands of infected fans in a confined space is a gruesome prospect, but the surveyors argue that it would be better than evacuating the ground and causing an epidemic. On the face of it, all architects can do is look at whether minor design alterations could help avert panic. But, as Building has suggested, wider precautions must be taken in stadiums and other landmark buildings. The use of central air-conditioning units should be reconsidered, and plant rooms monitored by CCTV. Paranoia? Maybe. But no lives have ever been lost through excessive safety precautions.