There are many occasions when the difference between fixing a problem easily and it defeating people at great cost can be very marginal. The old addage of “Don’t spoil the ship for a hap’orth of tar” can easily be applied to many such situations. However it is not always true. Sometimes the fact is that the amount of tar needed to save the ship is so significant that we need to look elsewhere than the man who sells the tar. This is true of the news last night that HMS Illustrious is on her way to the scrap heap, while the replacement Aircraft Carriers will not be ready for nearly 10 years and the planes to fly on them will take even longer. This blog is not about ships, and indeed the issue that provoked it was about roadworks to build a MetroBus scheme in a place called Bradley Stoke near Bristol as described in this article. After months and months of disruption, the local MP Jack Lopresti, said work to build a new public transport system near Bristol has “gone on too long”. However he was prepared to go further than simply make that observation which may or may not be true. He held a meeting with local Councillors and the contractors on the project to discuss the daily gridlock and he told the BBC that he had asked the contractors “to consider working on the sites for more hours each day to get the work done as quickly as possible and to minimise the congestion at peak times”.
The idea that men who are working hard digging holes and filling them in can find a few extra hours in the day on a ongoing basis to do more work is not something that is very sensible, when one considers the physical pressure on the individuals concerned and their health and wellbeing. All of us are capable of doing a bit more in the short term as a response to an unexpected demand. However adding 20-30% onto our workload week in, week out is not realistic. Our MPs should understand this better than anyone, bearing in mind the limited hours that Parliament sits to enact legislation, even though it may be over a matter of high priority to other people. I recall as a business being offered a contract by a public sector agency, but being pressured into working weekends to get the job done on time, simply because the project had slipped behind. I explained that apart from very exceptional circumstances, our engineers do not work at weekends. We were then told that we had been successful in being awarded the contract. We waited several days for the documentation to allow us to start work and I recall ringing at 4pm one Friday to see if the paperwork was ready. The person concerned explained to me with a high level of embarrassment that the contract team for the agency stop work at 3pm on a Friday. Then when one of my engineers did agree to finish the work on a Saturday, to commission the system at the end of the process in time for a Monday Morning start with the new arrangements we were told that no one was available for him to hand the system over too because none of their staff were willing to work weekends. The need for us to pull out the stops is sometimes very clear, but the need for proper long term planning and preparing people who will be impacted cannot be ignored. We need people in the public sector who understand the businesses they contract with and also the physical limitations of the work required. Otherwise our exposure to a decade or more without an Aircraft Carrier or two will become far more commonplace.