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Signoff: David Taylor

HAVE YOU ever wondered what soldiers do when they haven't got a war to get on with?

This might be a timely, er, time to ask yourself. A pal of mine has just got back from Basra clad in a pale blue djellaba and clutching a goldplated towel rail, which he had liberated from one of Saddam's palaces.

A reservist in the medical corps, he spent four months billeted in the aforementioned palace dispensing corn plasters to the troops and trying to remember what beer tasted like.

Now home, he at least has a job to go back to. But what will his colleagues in the regular army be doing when they finish their stint in Iraq?

They must do something, because the Ministry of Defence - one of the biggest construction clients in the UK - is always building new barracks and other buildings in which the soldiers can do whatever it is they do.

My guess is that a soldier's life - in contrast to that of most construction workers' - consists of training for about 90 per cent of the time. Most of these new buildings that Defence Estates is always so famously procuring must therefore be for training purposes.

If I'm right (and as I know nothing about military matters, what reason can I have to believe that I'm wrong? ) the average British soldier still spends far too much time polishing boots, painting coal and bashing squares.

So I was slightly shocked to read last week that the MoD is going to spend £4 billion on prefabs because it can't find enough skilled builders to put up its latest round of buildings.

I strongly urge the army to change its training strategy to focus less on boot polishing and more on building skills. I should imagine that the average squaddie could comfortably spend about 30 hours a week learning carpentry, plumbing, concreting or roofing and still find time in which to learn how to shoot straight.

Think about it: the benefits are potentially huge.

The MoD would have direct control of its own construction workforce; Defence Estates' procurement budgets would be slashed; the job of post-conflict reconstruction would be streamlined ('stop shooting, start building') and the construction industry would never have to worry about a skills shortage again.

THE SAME approach would not work for all public sector departments, of course.

Take the health service: nobody within a mile of an NHS hospital has enough time to learn how to wire a plug, let alone build anything.

But like the MoD, the health service is no slouch when it comes to procuring new buildings.

It is hugely flattering that healthcare providers from around the world are flocking to our shores in the hope of learning the secret of NHS Estates' spanking new ProCure 21 method of construction procurement.

This is something that the construction industry should exploit to the max. Say what you like about the Egan agenda, Rethinking Construction and the Movement for Innovation - after all, I do. Nobody can deny, however, that when the world sits up and takes notice of something like this, our industry must be doing something right.

When did health service providers ever swarm across the Channel to learn how the NHS plans its hip replacement operations?

It would all be sweetness and light were it not for a small piece in last week's Sunday Times declaring that the UK is about to get its first billionpound hospital, courtesy of the Private Finance Initiative.

You might suppose that, at £1 billion, the Paddington Health Campus is going to be one hell of a hospital, and you'd probably be right.

Trouble is, when the Department of Health gave the scheme the green light three years ago, the cost was put at only £360 million.

I suppose that says everything you need to know about PFI.