Many years ago I used to work in Oxgangs in Edinburgh. This is at the centre of the current scandal of faulty school buildings built under a PFI contract within the last 10 years. The current popular narrative is that the PFI (public Finance initiative) contract is in some way the cause of the faulty construction.
It is a narrative that suits people on both sides of our political system. The Left despise PFI because they see it as a infection from the Right. The Right use PFI as a whipping boy because it was widely used under New Labour.
The history of PFI is of course that it was designed and began to be used under John Major, probably as a response to the fact that many public sector buildings were in a state of disrepair after years of underfinancing, and that it was embraced by New Labour, in a major rebuilding spree to renew services.
The current narrative is that PFI is the problem. I cannot help thinking that this is simplistic. To me PFI looks more like a symptom.
The voting public want good services. They do not want to pay more tax. Taxing intentions are a prominent part of any election campaign. The political parties are united in allowing the voting public to believe that they can have the services they want without the pain of having to pay for them.
This fundamental dishonesty means that the government of the day – of whichever complexion, has to resort to magical thinking and magical accountancy. PFI is part of that.
Another interesting question raised by the current scandal in Edinburgh is “did faulty construction begin with PFI?” I think the answer to this is definitively “No!”
I spent some years working in another part of Edinburgh in the 70s and 80s. As a welfare services officer in the housing department in Wester Hailes I was frequently called out after fires in the stairways of the densely packed modern flats of this estate. These fires it was ultimately discovered were caused because the construction firm that built the flats had substituted a lower grade of plastic for the flame resistant grade specified by the architects. Kids who enjoyed a good fire discovered that the plastic to the drying greens could easily be ignited by a cigarette lighter. The fires were a major contributory factor to a modern estate quickly becoming an area where no one would choose to live. The desire to light fires is probably down to cramming thousands of flats into an area where 100s would be a better fit. We wanted a cheap solution, and that is what we got. The fires are apparently still an issue today.
Down the road in Hailesland there used to be a group of multi storey flats, built in the 60s. These are no more, The problem was that the heavy concrete cladding that formed the exterior skin of the building started to fall off. On investigation it was found that the steel clips which should connect the panels to the building structure did not always fit. The builders improvised. The panels eventually fell off and all the residents had to be moved out and the flats were knocked down.
I happen to know about these events in Edinburgh, but I would be astonished if similar things have not been happening for a very long time in many parts of the country.
It is right to feel concern about the quality of buildings built with public money, but let us be realistic. If we want services that work well, and help people live good productive lives then it is necessary to pay for them. If we see options that promise to give us the services on the cheap then we should probably make the effort to read the small print. There is probably a catch.