We’re back in the seventies… the decade of endless teabreaks, sclerotic roads and paralysed government – as portrayed in the work of a certain popular actor
Let’s get Britain back to work. Let’s get the construction industry back in business. Let’s lay the foundations for our recovery in the future.
Yeah, absolutely. You know what? I couldn’t agree more. That John Maynard Keynes had a point, in his way. But the pity of it at the moment is that the approach we seem to be taking to construction in Britain is less Keynes and more Right Said Fred.
Aficionados of the work of Bernard Cribbins will remember the role he played as the voice of Paddington Bear and his distinguished service as one of the many fine character actors who made the Carry On films what they were. But his finest hours were undoubtedly his hymns of praise to hole-digging and the joy of the tea break. His brilliantly popular songs ’Ole in the Ground and Right Said Fred are classics.
By rights, Bernard’s ditties should be seen as quaint period pieces, like prog rock gatefold albums, but he has become a prophet of the state of play today
Cribbins captured something of the sense of less-than-wild urgency that occasionally bedevilled building work in the bad old days of restrictive practices and poor project management, and he punctured the bureaucracy that afflicted the digging of holes in the decade of decline that was the seventies.
By rights, Bernard’s ditties should be seen as quaint period pieces, like prog rock gatefold albums, a reminder of a time when everything took far longer. But the tragedy is that, far from being a sweet relic of the past, he has become an uncannily accurate prophet of the state of play today.
This week has brought more news of the bureaucracy that has held up delivery of the school building and renovation programme. The National Audit Office reminds us that by last December we should have had 200 Building Schools for the Future projects done, but we had scarcely 20. We also discovered the programme was going to cost another £10bn. And we’ve since found out that the £800m brought forward for the primary capital programme, and for renovation, in November won’t begin to be allocated for another month. A whole quarter has passed and we’re not a single step nearer getting anyone working.
Why don’t we have round-the-clock repairs going on to ensure more people are gainfully employed and the arteries of commerce unblocked?
And the failure to get the school building programme up to speed is matched by the failure to get things moving properly anywhere else. Not least on our roads. The recent bad weather has underlined how much work needs to be done to improve our transport network. The need for action is urgent. But urgency is the last thing you associate with the roadworks … in fact, roadworks is something of a misnomer. Yes, huge stretches of the road network, from major arteries such as the M4 and A2 to the minor streets of London, will have lanes fenced off and signs warning of delays. But those massive fenced-off reservations are usually either unoccupied or populated by one or two lonely figures meditatively sipping cups of tea, Bernard Cribbins-style. It is certainly the case that nobody is there before the rush hour and while some desultory activity may follow, I have yet to see any sign of life after 4pm. Everything really does stop for tea.
Now my frustration at being jammed behind these roadworks, belching CO2 into the atmosphere, is, I suppose, something I’d better get used to. But what I can’t understand is why, when we are desperate to keep the construction industry hard at it, and have every skilled hand occupied, does work stop so early and proceed so slowly? Why don’t we have round-the-clock repairs going on to ensure more people are gainfully employed and the arteries of commerce unblocked? Why do the public authorities, the Highways Agency and the utilities, keep the roads blocked for so long? Why aren’t they incentivised properly to keep the time roads are dug up as low as possible? That would certainly keep employment at a maximum and delays to a minimum.
The people in my firing line are not the construction workers – I want more of them kept in work, for longer. No, it’s those in charge I have in my sights. The ones who manage things so poorly and appear not to recognise the impact of their laggardness on the public, or the wider economy. Why can’t they, personally, face financial penalties for holding back productivity and adding to the costs the rest of us face? Yes, the roads may be getting fixed in the long run. But, as Keynes reminded us, in the long run we’re all dead.
Michael Gove is shadow secretary for children, schools and families