There is no sign of a swift resolution to the buildings crisis that forced 100 schools to close partially or fully at the start of the new academic year, when the Department for Education raised concerns about the instability of buildings constructed with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete.
The potential dangers of this lightweight and widely used material have been known since the 1990s when it ceased to be used in public buildings. The government started commissioning surveys last year but this was very low key and the potential extent of the problem has now created horror for councils, headteachers and parents nationwide.
We cannot blame government for the building methods of previous generations, but we can object to the frequency with which capital budgets – intended for maintaining infrastructure – have been raided for day-to-day spending needs. This is literally a concrete example of the failure of long-term planning.
Governments of all colours are guilty, and it is one reason why our public services are creaking at the seams. Yet our democratic system does not provide the best environment for thinking ahead.
Churchill famously said that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried…” One fault is that it encourages short-termism.
Politicians are often guilty of looking only as far ahead as tomorrow’s headlines, or at best the next general election, seeking quick fixes that will boost poll ratings, rather than strategies whose benefits will not be apparent for a generation.
It is easy to prioritise the urgent over the important and cut corners on maintenance. When money is tight, it becomes politically difficult to justify spending to stave off an unseen threat. Governments like to point to what they have achieved, but how do you quantify and gain credit for preventing something that no one really expected to happen anyway?
So, since 2007-08, capital budgets for schools have fallen by more than a third. Government has diverted the money to other areas. This cut has been reflected across the public sector, and now we learn that the cost of fixing schools, hospitals and other buildings with RAAC will cost billions of pounds.
But wise leaders build for beyond their time. They do not always expect to see the outcome of their endeavours. I’m always impressed by the vision of those who built our great cathedrals. Many took decades and even centuries to build.
Cathedrals were built as a form of worship by Christians in past ages, handing on the stewardship of these great buildings from one generation to the next. Indeed, stewardship is a Christian concept that today’s society could embrace more fully.
It recognises that we do not own our planet or its resources, but are looking after it on behalf of those around the world and those not yet born, who will live with the consequences of our actions and inactions.
We choose to elect a government to collect taxes and run public services on our behalf. In return we expect reliable management from those entrusted with such powers.
Unfortunately, we well know that concentration of power, lack of accountability and wrong motives all mean that our money is not always spent wisely or well.
But politicians should neither ignore nor fear the electorate. Almost every area of public policy would benefit from longer term planning, and people recognize this.
Examples might include the creation of a sustainable system of social care, after 20 years of governments have marked it as ‘too difficult’ and left it for their successors. Do we really have to reach crisis point, as with school buildings, before decisions are made?
Or let’s consider climate change. The costs of cutting carbon emissions, switching to clean energy, and keeping the earth’s temperature below a tipping point, have been dodged and fudged by politicians across the globe. As more people are displaced from their homes due to floods, droughts, earthquakes, war and persecution, when will we be brave enough to work with other governments to devise a long-term plan to manage and re-settle them?
We’ve all heard of the acronym NIMBY, but perhaps the blight of political leadership is NIMTO: Not In My Term of Office. We need leaders who are not affected by NIMTO-ism but are prepared to look for solutions, rather than constantly reacting to the symptoms, applying sticking plasters and hoping that something will turn up.
The polls tell us that people are increasingly losing hope in any politicians to fix the issues besetting us. After years of Brexit divisions and pandemic, followed by the current cost of living crisis, we need to offer optimism and hope for a weary generation. As the general election approaches, we must have conversations about the complexity and costs of these thorny problems, and to start selling the long-term benefits to a population that is losing faith in everything.