Some provide a great deal more. Snow Hill, near St Paul's Cathedral, is a charming a 1920s arts-and-crafts exercise in Portland stone. Then there's the one opposite Liverpool Street station, which is a more adventurous composition in pepper-and-salt polished granite, styled as 1930s art deco, and the one near my home is a 1920s neoclassical offering made from beautiful thin red bricks, with elegant black railings and tall sash windows. There is something about the architectural presence that tells you that you are in the right hands. Although they are clearly police stations, they don't shout at you any more than they need to – just enough so that you can find E E one if you're looking for it.
In his speech at the opening of the brand new headquarters building for the Met in Lewisham High Street, south-east London, Sir John Stevens made reference to need for the police to foster community relations, the better to fight against terrorism. Nobody is going to disagree with that. He also praised the building for being ON TIME (cheers) and ON BUDGET (even more cheers). It was, he said, giving the police what they wanted. Lewisham High Street is not especially rich in architecture, but it you can see that it's a reasonably thriving urban centre with buildings that have been developed over two or three hundred years.
So what style have the architects chosen to present this £30m exercise in integrating the police into the local community? Well, wouldn't you know, it's the PFI style. Crude, cheapjack, joyless municipal building at its very worst. Anything can be on budget if the budget is big enough, or the standard low enough, and anything can be on time if the contract period is long enough. Is this the best we can do with public building? As the great Billy Wilder said, "Nobody ever went to see a movie because they knew it came in under budget".
The dispiriting thing about this development is that it is going to be there for such a bloody long time. Like it or not it's in the public realm, so might it not just offer the tiniest scintilla of civic gravitas? Clearly not. It's three times as big as anything else in the street for a start. Despite the prominence of the building, the actual public entrance (as in sod you, Joe and Joannah Public, this is the Met) is stuck on the return of one of the wings, like an MFI dog kennel on a suburban semi. Despite a concrete forecourt, which is as big as a parade ground, the steps to the entrance wouldn't seem over-specified on a playground sand pit. But of course, it's not for the public, is it? It's for the police. This Stalinist behemoth accommodates the borough police operations, units of the specialist crime directorate, the mounted branch, and the forensic science command unit. When the police feel like working with the public, they can roll back the 20 m wide two-storey high blue steel gates, jump into their squad cars, jam on the screech sirens at full crank, cross the forecourt and drive over the pavement, (that's right – over the pavement) and into the community. I mean, it's hardly Dixon of Dock Green.
Off we headed for the tour. Essentially, what we have is a pretty low-spec office building with rather too much emphasis on the circulation areas. You know the sort of thing. Sort of okay, but a bit lightweight for big strong policemen and women. "I know that the developer has to look after this for 25 years" I said to one of the surveyors on the police panel, "But don't you think those 5 mm thick neoprene skirtings are a tad on the puny side?" "That's what we said at the briefings, but Equion said it was their lookout, and I suppose it is."
You can see this cheap detailing everywhere. Kitchen cabinets where the iron-on cover strip is already bubbling off so the steam from the kettle is having a go at the substrate under the laminate. The carpets are only about twice as thick as a coat of paint. If you'd ever forgotten that police officers are usually active people who spend their working lives with bulky hardware strapped to their waists, you only have to look at the corridors. A dark line where the paint is in the process of being scraped off at truncheon height.
It must be possible to produce decent buildings under the PFI. The architect just has to learn to have an effective rapport with the builder rather than with the client. The GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham was designed by an American architect and perhaps they are more used to this sort of relationship. We have already seen what happens when the nation delegates the care of its Countryside to commercial farmers. We are about to see what happens when it delegates the development of its towns and cities to commercial building contractors such as Equion. For some reason, PFI consortiums all have names that sound like some miracle chemical compound you've never heard of. Roof leaking? Just slap on a couple of coats of Carillion.
A police station is not really a complicated project. Relative to the cost of mounting an investigation such as the Soham enquiry, the money spent procuring the actual buildings the police work in can't be that high, so it's merely disappointing when the architectural quality seems so absent. What happens when the biomedical technology in a PFI hospital is procured the same way the skirtings are procured here? Police stepping over hairy-arsed builders as they restick miles of floor coving every six weeks is one thing. But having to shut surgical wards because the oxygen lines don't work is another.
I suppose that, compared with being shoehorned into Victorian buildings where there is no room for anything, being accommodated in a purpose-built open-plan office is a welcome alternative, but it could easily be so much better. We were given the tour. An office is an office, and the detention cells were as bashproof as you might expect. I was quite taken with the low-level ultraviolet lights in the entrance lobby, which could detect whether or not you've been handling parts of other people's building society account. I was looking forward to seeing the stables where the magnificent police horses were cloistered. I'd thought the architect might have responded to the challenge of providing tailor-made loose boxes for these beautiful animals. I was wrong. Great lumpy blue open trusses is what PFI horses like, apparently.
I was coming out into the yard with Alan Croney, one of the strategic planners in the allocation of services to the police. There was a line of patrol cars parked in front of us. "Does car provision go on rank?" I asked, adding that I'd prefer to be chasing villains in a 525i BMW than in a Vauxhall Vectra. "Not at all," he replied, "it's first come first served. In fact we're phasing the Vauxhalls out. We keep cars four years and we've done a life-cycle analysis. We've found that if we buy 2.5-litre Beamers, they stand more of a caning, and because the service intervals are much greater they're out of commission for less time. We specify them in silver because that fetches the best price when we sell them."
"So top quality is the criterion when you're choosing off-the-peg cars that last four years, and close to rock bottom for designing purpose-made buildings that might have to last a hundred?" "I'd never thought of that," he said.