Saturday, 7 March 2009

£42 Million Question

Well it was inevitable, the announcement that the Welsh Assembly Government planned to spend £42 million doing up the civil service HQ in Cathays Park drew the expected storm of protest. Spending money on the government is never popular, so no surprise that this produced some headlines. The usual suspects trotted out their line that there were better causes, that this money should be spent on schools and hospitals and that the National Assembly, the Welsh Assembly Government and the civil service in Wales should be abolished. Now while I agree schools and hospitals should have money spent on them this doesn't detract from money being spent, when needed, on the actual infrastructure of government.

So what is this money for? The headlines don't tell us much, and the newspaper reports don't give much detail either. We are left with the impression of civil servants working in luxurious conditions while the rest of us face the cold winds of the credit crunch. All the focus has been on the building in Cathays Park, comprising the old Welsh Office Building, a grade 2 listed 1930s Portland stone building and the modern (ish) 1980s extention, which houses the bulk of the Welsh Civil Service. This at the time was the largest office building built in the UK. It houses thousands of workers.

So time for a few facts.

1. The money is to be spent over six years, that is £42 million is not to be spent in one year.
2. A total of 19 buildings in and around Cardiff will be refurbished, this is the sum for all those buildings not just one.
3. The work is necessary (so we are told) to bring the buildings up to a modern standard for health and safety.
4. The work includes upgrading the buildings to make them more energy efficient.
5. When completed the building will cost £5 million a year less to run, for the most part due to greater energy efficiency.

So it looks less like an exercise in featherbedding and more like an investment. An investment that will pay for its self in under 9 years and then give savings to the Welsh Government of £5 million a year. In times when we are all being told we must move to reducing our carbon footprint and government must save money doesn't this now start to look like, to coin a phrase, prudent expenditure?

This of course raises some questions. Such as why the media decided to give the spin on it that they did? Another knocking story, politicians eager to jump onto a bandwagon without finding out the facts is not exactly novel, but the unnamed Plaid politicians should know better.

Of course a similar crash program of refurbishment should be happening with our schools and hospitals, it would do much to invigorate our economy and keep those the building trade etc employed. Unfortunately the sums of money aren't available to do this, as the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government have no borrowing powers. At a time when the UK government are spending billions on propping up the banks this sort of stimulus package is exactly what we need here. A general upgrading of all public buildings to conform to the latest health and safety requirement and to ensure maximum energy efficiency would save us hundreds of millions a year in running costs, if the savings for the 19 buildings are replicated throughout Wales. And as a bonus this would go someway to cutting our carbon footprint. Perhaps this is what, in part, Ieuan Wyn Jones was suggesting when he produced a paper calling for a £3 billion investment.

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