A concrete example of the failure of long-term planning

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There is no sign of a swift resolution to the buildings crisis that engulfed the schools system a few days before the start of the new academic year. More than 100 schools were forced to close partially or fully when the Department for Education raised concerns about the instability of buildings constructed with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).

This lightweight and cheap material was used widely between the 1950s and 1990s, but water and rust damage can cause it to disintegrate, and its shelf life of about 30 years means that some of our public buildings may be at risk of sudden collapse.

This has been known about since the 1990s when it ceased to be used in the construction of public buildings, including hospitals, prisons, theatres, universities and courts. The government started commissioning building surveys last year but this was very low key and the potential extent of the problem has 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 have been guilty, and this is one reason why our public services are creaking at the seams. Politicians look to 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 on staving 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 are told that the cost of fixing schools, hospitals and other buildings with RAAC will cost billions of pounds.

It is especially difficult to justify longer-term projects in the light of high inflation and a cost of living crisis. 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, using hundreds of craftsmen and workers, who passed their trade from one generation to the next. Milan cathedral took 577 years to complete!

Cathedrals were built for the glory of God, as a form of worship by Christians in past ages. Christians today should also be seeking to reflect the glory of God in the way that we steward the resources we are given, and to hold our leaders accountable for their responsibilities.

Stewardship is a deeply Biblical concept. Psalm 24:1 reminds us that "the earth is the Lord's and everything in it", and Genesis 2:15 tells us that God charged humankind to "work it and take care of it". Christians are also called to love our neighbour, and Jesus clarifies that everyone is our neighbour, including those who are not yet alive and who will live with the consequences of our actions and inactions.

In 21st century Britain 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 fallen human beings are susceptible to corruption and self interest. Concentration of power, lack of accountability, wrong motives and short-term aims all mean that our money is not always spent wisely or well.

Remedying such failures feels like putting a plaster on an amputation. Christian engagement in politics is so important because we know that we cannot solve these issues in our own strength. We must cry out to God for wisdom. On this specific matter, let's pray for the money to be found and the work to be carried out, to ensure our children are being taught in safe schools.

And let's make sure at a deeper level that we are holding our leaders to account for their stewardship responsibilities. Whether they know it or not, they are answerable to God for their care for those in their charge. As our nation moves away from the moorings of Christian values, we must be working and praying intentionally for those in authority to reach a deeper understanding of what it looks like to exercise good government and guardianship over our nation.

Tim Farron has been the Member of Parliament for Westmorland and Lonsdale since 2005, and served as the Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party from 2015 to 2017.Tim is also the host of Premier's 'A Mucky Business' podcast. His new book A Mucky Business: Why Christians should get involved in politics is published in November.