When it comes to inner city social housing, boring, old-fashioned public procurement is the most amazingly good deal for the taxpayer. Unlike the PFI …
The first publicly funded job I ever ran was the conversion of a three-storey terraced house into a one-bedroom and a three-bedroom flat, both with garden access, and both to last for 30-years. It differed from today’s standards only in that the soundproofing requirement was less stringent, and, for some bizarre reason, the brief did not extend to providing radiators in the bedrooms. The client was housing association Circle 33, which had only recently become fully independent of the firm of architects that had set it up. If they did not actually know their tenants personally, they certainly knew a good deal about them.

The contract sum (my first encounter with a term that seems to have dominated my working life ever since) was £16,644. The total development cost, including purchase, was about £39,000, which was more than a private developer would have ventured at the time. The final account was within the 10% yardstick allowed by the funding authority.

Assuming an average rental tenancy of 30 months, this development has provided good quality accommodation for about 70 people since it was handed over in 1978. Increasing levels of rent and inflation meant that the mortgage was paid off in nine-and-a-half years. Building work and subsequent maintenance was carried out by a small local firm, which went on to complete about a further 20 projects before the managing director ran off with his secretary. It was extremely good training for this particular architect, and the development helped prime the pump for the injection of private capital into other houses in the neighbourhood, which is now a conservation area. Not only is the development model extremely effective for housing in inner cities, but, if it chose to do so, Circle 33 now has a property that it could sell for more than half a million pounds.

All the public’s eggs are finding their way into an alarmingly small number of private baskets

All right, so it’s not a 300-bed hospital, but there seems to be a publicly funded development principle working here that has since been ruthlessly discarded. It’s presumably only a matter of time before this kind of development is superseded by the universal answer to publicly funded anything, not to mention the answer to big contractors’ dreams: the Public Fleecing Initiative, also known as the corporate takeover of UK plc. Instead of 50 pretty, scattered Victorian houses, we will get a return to great Stalinist housing blocks, where economies of scale are mistaken for value for money, and which whole communities will need to be uprooted to accommodate.

If the resultant stalag housing unit it is anything like the PFI projects I’ve seen so far, it will be banal, crudely assembled and utterly charm-free. It will have been built (that is, subcontracted by subcontractors subcontracting their subcontracts) by people who have zero connection with the client, the users, and, if the project managers get their way, any member of the design team. The moment the “preferred bidder” has established its monopoly position, it will begin to demonstrate that it is OK for the whole operation to cost 50% than the previously agreed guaranteed maximum price, and will set a formula that will allow maintenance and management costs to surge geometrically during the life of the project. At the end of this period, the “client” – that is, you and me – will not only end up with bugger-all, but will have to find somewhere for 600 tenants to live. The site that we have paid millions to develop will no longer belong to us.