SUMMER BREAK

I hope you’ve found the blog of some interest, and I’m grateful to the people who’ve been kind enough to say so. But all of us deserve a break, so there will be no new posts on this site until some time in September. Please look for me again around that time. Meanwhile, enjoy the summer holiday, as I intend to do.
Best wishes, John

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U-TURNS AND A SENSE OF REALITY

The government’s higher education White Paper is expected in the coming week.  I’m sure ministers will be wanting to avoid anything that the press might depict as a U-turn.  That could prove difficult.  I hope at least that presentation of the funding proposals will reflect reality.  The government’s response to the Browne Review at the end of 2010 talked of fees and loans in a way that failed to represent reality but succeeded in frightening potential students and their families.  The reality was (still is) that government would pay fees on students’ behalf, and might succeed in getting up to 70% of that money back (over a very long period) through the tax system, in what should have been called a ‘deferred graduate contribution’.  Higher education would continue to be tax-funded, but the tax base for perhaps 50% of total expenditure would no longer be the population as a whole, but the 40+% of the population who benefited from HE. Graduates whose careers didn’t lead to well-paid jobs would pay little or nothing back.  That sounds very different from the rhetoric on both sides of the argument, but it is the reality of the proposals.  Far from agonising about how to spend all the money they are going to save (the 80% reduction  in spending trumpeted by the press) the government’s main worry at the moment is how they going to afford the package they have proposed – at least in the short-term.

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IN PRAISE OF SUBURBIA

If you’re a regular follower, thank you – and I’m sorry I was silent last week.  I was uncomfortable and lethargic after a minor operation.  A bit more more of that still to come, but nothing too serious – so please keep looking for me and forgive occasional absences.

It was good to see news of a joint government-industry initiative to boost house building.  Much needed.  Current output is no more than 100,000 units a year, while the need is for more than twice that figure.  A survey by the Halifax Bank suggests that 64% of 20 to 45 year olds believe they will never own their own home.  This encourages some commentators to opine that we in the UK put too much emphasis on home-ownership. After all, they say, Germany is a prosperous country, but there only 46% of dwellings are owner-occupied – compared with 71% in the UK.  It seems to me that every country has a distinct national character, and  that home ownership has worked well for the UK in all sorts of ways.

One expression of Britain’s national character, I would argue, is the private household garden.  I was glad last week to be able to get some fresh air and gentle exercise without having to leave my home.  My (not very large) garden also makes a small contribution to biodiversity, attracting  birds, bees and the occasional small mammal – and I even grow a few things to eat.  Rented homes may also have gardens, but owner-occupied homes with reasonably well-tended gardens are the defining characteristic of British suburbia.  We have more than 20 million such gardens totalling (it has been suggested) about a million acres of cultivated land.

Public gardens are important too, and we have the Victorians to thank for most of them.  It’s good to see a few more being created today.  I hope later this year to see something of the High Line, the public garden that is being created in New York, some 10 metres above street level on the bed of a former elevated railway. Meanwhile I shall enjoy my own bit of green space – and continue to hope that we can manage our planning processes and the housing market in a way that will make that enjoyment a realistic possibility for future generations.

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JOINING-UP BRITAIN

As in most years, there is talk of drought in the UK.  The country as a whole receives, each year, enough rainwater to meet all our needs – but it doesn’t always fall where it is needed most. Nothing comes free;  purifying and distributing water costs money and energy – and adds to carbon emissions.  So we are right to economise in the use of water, and there is a definite need to extend water-metering to every household. But we also need to make better use of the water nature provides.  Our forefathers understood this, and built dams and pipelines.  Now, in an age when we are profligate in our use of water – and show little sign of being less attached to our green lawns and golf courses – we are doing, comparatively, much less.

The need to improve UK infrastructure of all kinds has been recognised by government, but has not yet entered the national psyche.  Joining-up Britain – high speed rail, water distribution, broadband connectivity, urban cycleways and local public transport (to get us out of our cars) and better roads where we have little choice but to use cars – are all needed if the UK as a whole is to be competitive.  I’m increasingly convinced that public expenditure on construction must be biased towards infrastructure, that expenditure on new buildings must deliver better value for money, and that buildings must be seen as long-term assets, capable of multiple uses over their lives.  Equally I don’t feel that (perfectly proper) concerns about the value delivered by some PFI projects should blind us to the real opportunities to fund infrastructure projects through the market.

The UK is not yet a well joined-up country.  The success of the financial services sector (which is by no means dead) was based upon London and a small number of other cities, including Leeds. If it is to meet social and economic needs, our industrial recovery needs a much broader geographic base – and that demands state-of-the-art infrastructure of every kind. So far, I haven’t seen a national business case for this, nor a powerful lobby.

 

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‘MAKE NO LITTLE PLANS’

David Davis MP had a powerful article in The Times last week (18.05.11) on the need for more investment in broadband infrastructure. He drew an analogy with the 19th century construction of the London sewerage system. Its designer,  Joseph Bazalgette, surveyed a city of scattered villages, and concluded that his system would have to be large enough to cope when the gaps had been infilled to form a continuous urban area.  Having arrived at a figure for the capacity that would require, he then doubled it!  Hardly scientific, but brilliant foresight.

I found myself wondering if we could ever be as bold as that in the cash-strapped early 21st century. I have seen some PFI (private finance initiative) schemes where space has well exceeded present needs – for example community health centres with several rooms unoccupied a year after opening – but I confess that I have often put that down to lax decision making, influenced by a perception of ‘easy money’,  rather than visionary future-proofing.  I recognise the part played by the PFI in improving the UK’s public estate, but I think it has sometimes encouraged a lack of rigour in the evaluation of needs – with financial consequences for future generations. And yet, as the Bazalgette example proves,  bold expansive vision can sometimes be proved right by subsequent events.

When it comes to digital infrastructure, David Davis suggests that bold expansive vision is lacking in the UK – indeed, that we are ‘trailing the world’.  Only 0.2% of UK households have a superfast broadband connection, compared with 34% in Japan.  There is a danger, he says, that superfast broadband will be an urban luxury in Britain, with damaging consequences for the economy.  And he makes the point that remedying that deficiency does not require advanced technology; it’s more a matter of digging trenches and laying pipes – a bit like Bazalgette’s sewerage project, and similarly labour-intensive. Where would the money come from?  Perhaps this is a case for a visionary PFI.

The title of this post comes from Daniel Burnham, who produced the master plan for the modern city of Chicago, early in the 20th century.  I jotted down the words when I went there some years ago, and they have stayed in my mind:  ’Make no little plans’, he said, ‘they have no power to stir men’s blood’.

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BENEATH THE RADAR?

A few weeks ago I lamented the low profile of higher education for the built environment (Blog, 29.03.11).  It’s easy to feel paranoid about this sort of thing – perhaps all academic disciplines feel they are under-regarded.  And yet!  Writing in Times Higher Education (12.05.11) Matt Robb notes that in many universities work is focussed around five major subject areas:  business, IT, design, teacher training and nursing  (Certainly, in my experience, that is pretty much true of many of the former polytechnics.)  These courses, he suggests, generate large student numbers and financial surpluses.  By definition, the remainder is fragmented, marginal and (in the present financial climate) at risk.  The need, I believe, is for the built environment disciplines to coalesce, market themselves effectively, and create demonstrable economies of scale.  We are a significant part of the higher education market – and we jolly well need to be if we are to generate the professional skills needed to tackle environmental challenges.  But we have never been seen as as a big battalion – or, to mix the military metaphor, we are constantly beneath the radar. The only BE discipline that has any real public profile is architecture; it is supported by high student demand, but other market indicators (graduate jobs and salaries) are less impressive than those in fields such as construction management and surveying.  In the present funding climate, architecture has as much to gain (in terms of its own security)  as other BE disciplines from the creation of a built environment power-base in higher education.  Built environment academics really shouldn’t be replicating the narrow sectarianism of the Victorian professions – especially when doing so might lead to extinction.

 

 

 

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SOME STATISTICS

All I want to do today is to share some statistics that, for me, have jumped off the pages of newspapers over the past few days.  They all seem relevant, in various ways, to the construction industry and higher education.  First the size of the industry in the context of  national GDP (gross domestic product):  a statistic which I have found is often exaggerated by people who want (for good reasons of course) to ‘talk up’ our industry.  Official  government figures for 2010 are not yet out, but Deutsche Bank’s chief economist has anticipated them.  Construction comes out at 5.8% of GDP, compared with manufacturing (which is growing its share of GDP for the first time in 15 years) at 11.1%.  Both are dwarfed by the amorphous category of  ’services’ on 78.5%.  I have a feeling that the services category includes some aspects of facilities management and consultancy that I think of as construction, so I would be content to quote construction as being about six to seven percent of GDP – at least half the size of manufacturing.

Next to a particular aspect of the ‘north-south divide’ in the UK – specifically public spending as a percentage of GDP.  That percentage rose dramatically, throughout the country, over the the period 2000-2010.  But in the north of England it is now well over 50%:  in my region of Yorkshire and the Humber it stands at 55.4%, compared with 41.5% in the Southeast.  The North’s dependence upon public sector employment is a systemic economic weakness – and one with obvious political implications at a time of spending constraint.

Finally some statistics that are  probably more important than all of the above.  Over the past decade the annual number of births in England and Wales increased by 14%.  Population as a whole is growing twice as fast as in the 1990s.  In 1950, the UK population was about 50 million;  by 2015 it will have grown to about 65 million – and despite the increased birthrate there will be more pensioners than children.

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A KNOWLEDGE-BASED INDUSTRY?

My posts will be briefer over the next few weeks, as I attend to family matters and undergo some medical treatment.  Perhaps I can just pose a few questions, without trying to answer them.

What evidence do we have that research in construction management, over say the last 30 years, has led to measurable improvements in industry performance – in aspects such as productivity, safety, quality and project delivery?  I’m convinced that higher education in CM has changed the industry for the better by producing thoughtful, knowledge-based practitioners who have generated new ways of doing things, and a raised level of response to client needs.  Measurable improvements have occurred in all the outcomes I’ve listed above, and higher education has been an unsung hero in these achievements.  I’m also sure that wouldn’t have happened to anything like the same extent without the research-based approach to higher education which has been promoted by dedicated academics around the world.  In the UK, the impetus provided by ARCOM (the Association of Researchers in Construction Management) for more than a quarter of a century has been notable.  I’m less sure that new knowledge generated  by CM research has directly impacted upon industrial practice to the extent we all might wish, nor do I see much evidence of a ‘research-development-application- evaluation-adjustment-normalisation’ loop on the scale that the importance of the industry warrants.  Am I wrong?

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LONG LIFE AND LOOSE FIT: FOOTNOTES

A friend has suggested that relatively new buildings are being demolished in order to be replaced by buildings that allow public companies to parade their environmental consciousness.  The new building may meet low-carbon criteria, but the energy embodied in the original building (and its premature demolition) is conveniently ignored.  The environmental merits of retention, conservation, improvement and reuse deserve greater exposure.

So I’ve been delighted to hear from my home town of Wolverhampton (upgraded to a city since I left it!) that the Royal Hospital is to be converted into a Tesco superstore.  It’s a fine Grade II listed building, but now unsuited to modern healthcare – although we should perhaps question that ‘unsuited’ judgement more often than we do. Anyway it’s to become a superstore,  and one of considerable grandeur I would think.

Ships aren’t buildings, but the suggestion that HMS Ark Royal might become a floating heliport for London – staffed by veterans of current and recent conflicts – struck me as really imaginative.  I gather that the Mayor of London is opposing the plan.  I’m normally one of Boris’s fans, but not this time.  Scrapping a ship – or a building – after a mere 25 years doesn’t make sense to those of brought up to ‘waste not, want not’.

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LONG LIFE AND LOOSE FIT

An RIBA President of the 1970s (Sir Alex Gordon) coined the phrase ‘long life, loose fit, low energy’, as a maxim for good building.  I’ve always liked that, but few others seem to remember it.  The low energy bit is now generally accepted, but the first two requirements (that buildings need to have a degree of permanence, and be capable of adaptation to a variety of uses over their lives) seem to be somewhat ignored.  The intended  life-span of a building is frequently unstated by designers, design is often tailored closely to current needs as if they are unlikely to change, and many buildings are structurally unsuited to adaptation.  And yet it seems that most of my favourite buildings have lived long and chequered lives, served a variety of occupants, and been frequently adapted and refurbished.

Having travelled in and out of London’s Liverpool Street station during the Broadgate development of the 1980s and 90s (and had a number of students on placement at the project), I was horrified to read last week that two of the buildings are to be demolished for redevelopment.   The Twentieth Century Society has called for the whole complex to be protected.  Leaving aside architectural merit (whatever that may mean – as Prince Charles might have said) can it really make environmental sense to demolish apparently sound buildings a mere 20 or so years into what might have been an expected life of 60 or 80 years?  There is a need for someone to assess the carbon implications of such decisions, taking account of the original environmental investment,  the implications of demolition and replacement, and the opportunities for environmental improvement of the existing building.  In my view there should be a strong presumption in favour of retention, backed up perhaps by planning consents indicating an intended design life, and requiring further consent for demolition within that period.

There is still a case, of course, for short-life structures – as London 2012 is demonstrating.  It was always intended that the main athletics stadium would be, in part at least, a demountable structure – and it seems now that it will be converted into a football stadium for the West Ham club. The 12,000 seat basketball arena has been designed from the outset as a temporary structure, and there is a suggestion (The Spectator, 16.04.11) that it might be sold on to the organisers of the Rio 2016 Olympic games.  There are many different ways of achieving sustainable construction – and all of them require a thoughtful approach to the life of the structure, however long or short that is going to be.

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THE GREAT CONSTRUCTION DEBATE

Marks and Spencer began life as a market stall in Leeds.  The company is now, in a sense, coming home by moving its corporate archive from London to the University of Leeds;  a small museum is already in place and well worth a visit.  As part of the project,  M&S has inaugurated a series of public lectures under the title Marks in Time, and the most recent lecture (last week) was on the subject of food.  The lecture (by Paul Willgoss from M&S) was excellent, and generated a lively debate in a mixed audience of food specialists and (like me) the simply interested.  Among many serious points, I’ve retained three snippets for smalltalk:   thirty years ago, the word ‘airfreighted’ on a pack of food helped to sell it, now it’s a negative in the customer’s mind and for M&S, for whom air freight is too expensive;  second point ( for upsetting eurosceptics, but really a recognition of global reality), 95% of the regulatory environment emanates from international bodies;  thirdly the human race will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as it has produced over the past 8,000 years!

Among most relatively well-informed people, food is a subject of intelligent interest, and topics arise easily around the dinner table:  GM foods, best-before dates, sugar, salt and obesity.  Likewise, education, health and the economy attract general public interest, encouraging radio and TV producers to make programmes.  But where is the great debate on construction and the built environment?  There is no shortage of topics which ought to excite interest:  the desperate need to improve UK infrastructure and the quandary of how we should fund it;  a housing crisis evidenced by an annual output of new homes of just about half the rate at which new households are being formed; 26 million existing dwellings which will have to serve us for a very long time, but which need systematic maintenance and environmental upgrading;  changes in the delivery of education, health and social care which warrant new thinking about the sort of buildings in which it will be based, and (I think) a much greater willingness to utilise our existing stock of buildings, whatever their original purpose.

Bring on the great construction debate – but where is our M&S?

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GOVERNANCE: A SENSE OF OWNERSHIP

I retired from membership of Leeds City Council almost a year ago.  I had enjoyed much of my six-year stint but, while I’m definitely a political animal, I’m afraid party-political loyalty is something of a challenge when you pride yourself as being an ever-sceptical pursuer of truth!  Nevertheless, I had found a role in the UK’s second-largest local authority which suited that disposition: as Chair, for three years,  of the Council’s Corporate Governance and Audit Committee.  I confess that I hadn’t previously thought very hard about the differences between management (which I’ve studied, taught and practised) and governance – so I did some pretty intense learning over those three years, reading a lot of official reports, and thinking about the nature of governance in a variety of public,  private and third-sector organisations.  I had also become a trustee of CIOB, which falls in the third of those categories.

My previous (employed)  working life had been spent mainly in colleges and universities – but governance had largely passed me by.  Even as Dean of a large faculty I’d been only dimly aware of who was sitting on the Board of Governors (the great and the good?) and what they were up to (providing sage advice but normally supporting the VC’s recommendations until, rarely, push came to shove?).  Certainly that view had been borne out by my three experiences as a school governor: I hope I was of of some use, but I’m afraid I never experienced a real sense of ownership.  My trusteeship at CIOB is different altogether: as a member of the Institute for the whole of my adult life, my sense of belonging is absolute.

These thoughts are prompted by a report on university governance by Malcolm Gillies (published on 31.03.11 by the HE Policy Institute).  He proposes, in essence, that universities should be governed by those with the greatest stake in their reputations: their graduates.  Given that, under the coming funding regime, these are the people who will be providing the bulk of the funds – and that the alumni of every university ought to embrace the full range of governance skills – the idea makes sense.

Organisations that engender a real sense of ownership seem to do  well in most areas of corporate life. That is confirmed by a recent study from Indiana University which found that internal recruitment of chief executives produced better results, over a wide range of performance  measures, than external recruitment.  Unsurprisingly, the internally appointed CEOs were paid less than those brought in from outside, but they also stayed longer.  My experience suggests that, while all organisations occasionally need new blood at the highest level, internal talent is often under-valued by those charged with corporate governance.

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AIRPORTS AND MY BACK YARD

I first thought about airport policy about 40 years ago, when I studied the (then) emerging technique known as cost-benefit analysis and was told that a CBA of sites for London’s third airport had attached a value of £5000 (or was it £500?) to a Norman church – the logic being that that was the amount on the fire insurance policy.  The story may be apocryphal, but it usefully supports the definition of a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.  My next encounter with airport policy was 30 years later when I came to live close to the grandiosely-named Leeds Bradford International Airport and found myself chairing a community group responding to a government consultation on airport policy.  Since the airport concerned is almost literally in my backyard, this probably qualifies me as a NIMBY;  but anyone who knows the area where LBIA is located (the highest civil airport in the UK, unserved by as much as a dual carriageway road link) may feel that there is an objective case to be made for restraining its growth.  However,  we’re all capable of  hypocrisy when our personal convenience is affected, and my current moan about LBIA is that (with effect from 1 April) it no longer provides a service to any London airport.

This year there is to be yet another round of government consultation on civil aviation, and the most controversial issue seems likely to be the coalition’s opposition to a third runway at Heathrow.  Meanwhile, Stansted  (the airport that emerged from that cost-benefit exercise 4o years ago) is operating at little more than 50% capacity.  What Eleanor Mills describes (in today’s Sunday Times) as our patched-together airports don’t seem to be serving us well. The Mayor of London’s advocacy of a new four-runway airport in the Thames estuary may seem breathtaking in the present economic climate, but it sounds right to me.  Yet more expansion at LHR sounds wrong – and not just because it’s in a lot of people’s backyard.

 

 

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‘MISTER CELLOPHANE’

There’s song in the musical ‘Chicago’ in which a bashful  character describes himself as Mister Cellophane –  because he feels people see right through him, and never notice he’s there.  I’ve sometimes felt that the built environment professions are, collectively, the Mister Cellophane of public policy – hardly noticed and very unassuming.

The thought returned to my mind with the publication (in the current issue of ‘Times Higher Education’) of background information on university vice chancellors in the UK.  From what I’m able to discern, it seems that of the 157 institutions covered in the survey, perhaps three have chief executives with some sort of built environment background.  Even if there are another two or three with BE credentials I’ve managed to miss, our representation is pretty lamentable.  GIven that the BE world includes a couple of long-established professional disciplines (architecture and civil engineering) and a number of newer disciplines that are well represented in the HE world (including construction management, planning and the various branches of surveying), and that the sector has a collective presence in strong BE faculties, the relative invisibility of BE at the highest levels of HE governance may seem odd.  The reasons are, perhaps, for speculation on another day.

Does our relative absence at that level limit our effectiveness?  At one of the CIOB education workshops I’ve been mentioning, a senior academic said that, in his experience, VCs saw BE courses as  ’useful cash-cows but not sexy’.  If I take ‘sexy’, in this context, to mean intellectually challenging and highly relevant to current areas of social concern, then they are clearly wrong if they do hold that view.  Perhaps they mean ‘not viewed as sexy by would-be entrants to HE’ – and they (the VCs not the school-leavers) may be right about that.  This is all about presence  - in at least two meanings of that word.

 

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INSPIRING : PEOPLE AND PLACES

Last week I was in Scotland for the fifth in the CIOB’s series of workshops on construction management education (see Blog 13.10.10 & 01.03.11 ), at Glasgow Caledonian University.  At each of these events, there has been expression of a range of common issues and concerns – many, inevitably,  relating to difficult times in the construction industry and uncertain times in higher education.  But each workshop has also developed a distinctive flavour:  at this one a united view that construction education has to appeal to high ideals concerning humanity and the environment, as well as to equip students with the knowledge and skills that will give them credibility in the workplace.  The high ideals part of that formula was not seen as a desirable add-on, but something essential to the recruitment of future generations of construction managers, and to the capacity of the industry to prosper, not by providing more of the same, but by responding creatively to changing needs.  As on the four previous occasions, I came away inspired by the enthusiasm of the academics, practitioners and students I had met.

I stayed over for a second day to visit a place that I read about when I first studied management:  the New Lanark mills, about 30 miles from Glasgow, in a dramatic gorge close to the Falls of Clyde.  The mills are famous as the place where, in the early 19th century, Robert Owen pioneered approaches to management that must have seemed hopelessly idealistic to many of his contemporaries.  Inevitably, in an age a century and a half before the welfare state, his methods were paternalistic:  decent homes for workers, education for their children, fair wages, free healthcare.  But he understood the symbiotic relationship between human fulfilment and business success.

New Lanark is now a Unesco World Heritage Site, and an immensely impressive visitor attraction – complete with a Disney-style ride (back to the mill of 1820),  the largest roof garden in Scotland,  shops, a restaurant and hotel.  If that sounds commercial, it didn’t feel that way.  I left feeling inspired (again!) by Robert Owen’s vision, by magnificent  buildings in a spectacular natural setting, and by the feeling that (throughout the UK) we should do more to celebrate the success stories of the industrial revolution – and the people who, like my colleagues at the CIOB workshop, have  recognised that human ideals and economic progress have to go forward hand in hand.

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