There was a golden period of about 12 months after the utilities were privatised when you could ring someone up with your gas/water/electricity/ phone problem and they just couldn't help you enough. "Yes sir. No sir. No trouble sir – would you like our technical engineers to come and meet you to assess your needs? I'm afraid we couldn't get anybody round much before tomorrow afternoon would that be all right?" After the runaround you'd been used to from, for example, the Gas Board, this was like walking along a York stone path after spending decades wading through Swarfega.
Of course it couldn't last. And it didn't. Now it's worse. I suppose the rot set in when they divided up the salesmen, the planners, the infrastructure and and the engineers who commissioned the installations. In the days of Gas Board, it was merely a question of finding the one person in 20 who actually did any work and waiting for them to find a window in their diary. On the credit side, although the utilities were woefully overmanned, most of the people who worked for them did know their jobs. You had nine guys leaning on shovels while one dug the hole, but any of them could have dug it, and in the right place, and put the right size pipe in, and fitted a meter and turned the bloody supply on.
Now it's all split up and nobody knows the whole story. One person sends you the quotation form, another fills it in, a third accepts your order, a fourth looks at where the holes are going to be dug, a fifth comes along with the pipes. As and when they feel like it. This was before someone had the bright idea that you'd be better off buying your gas from the people who supplied electricity, and buying your water from the guys installing the telephones.
The other thing is that nobody works for anybody anymore, so the people digging the street up to access the electricity main is basically a guy who digs holes. It's really only a matter of luck that he doesn't dig straight through that metal pipe with all the spaghetti wrapped around it. And he is only working for the hole digging subcontractor, who in turn is on some fantastically onerous contract whereby he has to dig 4000 miles of trench within a certain period or they burn his village down. So what he wants more than anything is an excuse to explain why he couldn't do what he was supposed to.
In Gas Board days it was merely a question of finding the one person in 20 who did any work
If you want an example of this, all you have to do is ring up and say you smell gas, and in no time – whether anyone can smell gas or not – chaps in blue dungarees will have wrapped your whole house in black and yellow tape, and there will be great red warning signs threatening death of the first born if your dare try and turn the meter back on on.
We were handing over a pretty serious house the other day when there was a knock on the door. It was a British Gas man, and he wanted to speak to my client. As she turned towards him in her Comme les Garcons buckskin fringed jacket, he handed her a form.
"What on earth is this," she asked imperiously.
"Key meter, madam. You missed a payment, so it's company policy."
"How can I possibly have missed a payment?" she screamed. "I haven't bloody moved in."
It turned out that after a supply and a meter had been installed in her name, a bill had been sent to the building site for the £13.22 worth of gas used to test the installations and it had got lost. It took about 10 days just to rearrange the paperwork.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London. See www.gusalexanderarchitects.com