Pennies from heaven

A new government means a new scramble for cash

‘I’m afraid to tell you there’s no money left’. 

It was only partly a joke, of course, the note left by Liam Byrne, outgoing chief secretary to the Treasury, to his successor David Laws after the 2010 General Election. There is always money: a national Contingencies Fund for emergencies and, for the day-to-day, whatever borrowing the markets and Treasury will stand. So money was found, even in the depths of recession, to build Crossrail in London. It could well have been mothballed but instead became a Keynesian economic stimulant. The hugely expensive 2012 Olympics (ditto) continued in the name of regeneration, though really it was national pride.

Five years on, in a better place economically, we all know there will never really be enough money for the National Health Service, which, like the armed forces or social services, is capable of absorbing almost limitless amounts: that’s just how these big-ticket items are. But a real programme of affordable and social housing? Better schools? Safe cycle ways? Improved tax incentives for renewable energy? Removal of VAT on refurbishment projects? Dealing with air pollution? More humane prisons? Dementia care? Substitute your wish list here. Working out which politicians are likeliest to help you, in this increasingly strange 2015 General Election – it’s complicated.

Today we are in the era of the Banzhaf Power Index or BPI – the mathematical measure of how much influence a given party can wield in the form of swing votes following an election with no clear outcome

Apologies to those future readers rummaging in physical or digital archives who know exactly how all this turned out. For those of us going through it in real time, it’s a matter of not knowing. Party manifestos used to be at least a clue as to what the winner in a two-way contest intended to do, and were always regarded by the first-past-the-post party as a 'mandate from the people'. Still, they were a start. Today we are in the era of the Banzhaf Power Index or BPI – the mathematical measure of how much influence a given party can wield in the form of swing votes following an election with no clear outcome. 

The previous coalition government made mincemeat of the manifestos of both the parties involved. Instead, everything was horsetrading. The next government, if a coalition or a minority administration, will be a matter of horsetrading in excelsis. This can be argued as a good thing, everything becoming less binary. Then again, nobody likes being blackmailed, and BPI demonstrates exactly how certain smaller parties can hold disproportionate power – something the big-beast politicians are of course not slow to condemn. 

As we ponder this Rumsfeldian prospect of known knowns and known unknowns, one thing is notably absent – the thing architects and their clients used to practise instinctively. Designing for the long term. The idea of quality, of permanence and adaptability. Not for the financial year end or the life of a Parliament. Not just the most square footage for the least money, or – especially with housing – the game of who builds most rather than who builds best. In a time of extreme political uncertainty, non-political campaigning organisations such as the RIBA know they have much work to do. Because there’s always money left in the national piggy-bank. But everyone else wants it as much as you do.