We are paying the price for a lost decade of underinvestment and strategic drift on construction and the built enviroment, writes Ben Flatman

Ben Flatman

Ben Flatman

For architects, there is a painful history underlying the current crisis around the safety of school structures. If you have been in the profession for more than 10 years, then you’ll likely remember the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme. Introduced by Tony Blair’s Labour government, it set out to systematically replace and renew the nation’s state school buildings.

With a projected budget of £45bn over a 15 to 20 year period, BSF represented a significant long-term commitment around which architects and contractors could base their business plans. But it was not without its critics.

Buildings were delivered through PFI consortiums, with much of the control taken out of the hands of local authorities. In a 2009 report, the National Audit Office identified the high cost of consultants as a concern, and some projects also took longer to get off the drawing board than the government had hoped.  

The programme was then unceremoniously dropped by the in-coming Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in July 2010. Michael Gove, then the secretary of state for education, attributed the decision to the urgent need to cut government spending after the 2008 financial crash, but many felt that the actions were ideologically motivated.

The Conservatives, as well as economically liberal elements within the Lib Dems, believed that the public sector had grown too large, and saw the economic crisis as providing a good excuse to cut it back, despite borrowing costs being historically low.

Gove also made it very clear that he saw architects as part of the problem. When addressing an audience of free school advocates in 2011, he made a point of singling out the profession for its supposed profiteering on the back of BSF, saying “no one in this room is here to make architects richer”.

Although Gove later recanted and said the decision had been a mistake, the long-term implications are now clear. As with so much of our infrastructure in the UK, we are now counting the cost of more than a decade of underinvestment in terms of crumbling school buildings.

British political life is often characterised by short-termism and a lack of strategic planning. But the country’s failure to fix its school buildings during a period of record-low borrowing costs surely ranks as among the saddest failures of an era characterised by missed opportunities and policy confusion.

When BSF was cut, the whole construction industry took a knock, not just architects. The pipeline of work had given employers the security to invest in skills, training and capacity building. Suddenly that disappeared, along with much of the expert knowledge, as firms retooled for other sectors.

A wiser government in 2010 might have seen BSF as a gift – a “shovel-ready” programme of construction projects, that could have helped drive economic growth, and contributed to the future educational attainment and productivity of the UK. Instead the Tories and Lib Dems chose short-term political advantage and ideology.

A properly funded public sector could have helped to facilitate much-needed private-sector investment

The coalition government’s attack on the school building programme was not an isolated incident. We are also seeing the impact of their cuts to local councils, which led to the decimation of local authority planning departments and loss of crucial urban design skills.

The chronic issues with our planning system are in no small part due to political decisions made over a decade ago. Cuts in public sector services and investment have caused massive damage to the UK’s resilience, and are a major cause of poor productivity and low growth.

Just when the country should be urgently ramping up delivery of housing, housebuilders find themselves stuck in a planning quagmire, as under-resourced local authorities struggle to process applications. A properly funded public sector could have helped to facilitate much-needed private-sector investment.

Similar neoliberal dogma has prevented the UK from planning for net zero and investing in the skills and infrastructure needed to build a new green economy. While the US is pumping billions into transitioning its economy, the UK has been sitting on its hands, hoping the failed free market orthodoxies of yesteryear will somehow magic up a solution to the country’s woes.

The low growth, low productivity, and low wage economy that the past five Tory prime ministers have bequeathed is a reminder of how much damage government can do when it is driven by ideology and short-termism. Business needs some degree of long-term certainty around investment and policy in order to thrive.

The sheer unpredictability of government policy over the past decade – typified by Brexit, but also the decisions to suddenly cut investment on projects such as BSF and HS2 – has made it harder for businesses to plan and invest for the future.

It was the construction industry that had to absorb the fallout from Gove’s decision to end BSF in 2010. But, in 2023, it is the nation’s children who are having to pay an even heavier price, with all the implications this has for their education and wellbeing. 

>> Also read: RIBA calls on government to set up industry task force to coordinate RAAC response