First person Compulsory regulation of public building, big contractors only for the NHS … control freak Blair has arrived at construction.
At his reception for Construction's top people at No 10 earlier this month (to which I was inexplicably not invited), Tony Blair launched the compulsory regulation of the design of government buildings, vetted by ministers. I can think of only two other examples of similar regulation of building design, Germany in the 1930s and the USSR in the 1950s.

Those regimes were admittedly somewhat more autocratic than Blair's, but favouring officially approved designers quite definitely does not result in "good design", whatever politically correct definition you invent.

Let me say straight away that Messrs Rogers, Foster, Hopkins and co are all brilliant designers with impeccable politics, but that does not mean we have to like their particular style or think that everything they produce is "good design" on pain of being sent to Siberia.

It is Blair's ministerial design tsars I feel sorry for. How on earth are they going to assess the quality of aesthetic design in the current climate of accredited certifiers without a new quango to establish a 50-page benchmark?

How are we going to be sure that mere government ministers have the taste and intellect to judge the work of our most eminent architects? Most importantly, is there anyone out there prepared to bid for these future architectural masterpieces, given that they are bound to lose money on them? The major contractors have withdrawn from competitive tendering and the rest of us won't be considered because we're too small and insignificant. This initiative flies in the face of everything that the Movement for Innovation has been striving for.

To believe that, on its own, favouring a small number of ennobled architects will guarantee the "good design" of government buildings is bizarre. It is just as daft as expecting that favouring the largest contractors with knighted chairmen will, by itself, reduce costs and produce a super-efficient customer-compliant industry.

If Blair really wants to improve design, he should ignore the architectural establishment and the major contractors’ lobby

But this is exactly what NHS Estates is trying to achieve through its restrictive Procure 21 programme. This bunches together all projects worth more than £1m and shares them among larger contractors.

Tony Maynard, the National Federation of Builders chief executive, has recently written to NHS Estates on behalf of the small and medium-sized construction companies that have been sidelined, and which make up 80% of the industry. His message was clear. If NHS Estates must bundle contracts to favour the largest firms, then it must make jobs worth less than £4m available to the smaller contractors. Below that level, NHS Estates can partner with small companies under Rethinking Construction principles, using the government's preferred procurement route (after PFI and prime contracting) of design and construct. Maynard has a point.

Government and the largest companies think all smaller firms work for larger ones. Nothing could be further from reality. Most small and medium-sized firms are independent, professionally run main contractors that will not work for larger contractors because they are too adversarial. Big firms will also try to poach their management, subcontractors and operative resources. Why should small builders exchange the misery of working for consultants for the bondage of prime subcontracting?

The key issue is the government's obsession with rationalising its supply chain to reduce its procurement costs. It is far too early in the Egan reform process to restrict the number of companies in the market. We must concentrate instead on rethinking and integrating the whole industry, because as it becomes more efficient and integrated, partnering teams will naturally emerge. It follows that favouring major contractors and consultants through PFI and prime contracting is diverting effort from the more important task of raising construction's cohesion.

If Blair really wants to improve design and help the Treasury to get better value for money from construction, he should ignore the architectural establishment and the major contractors' lobby and stop trying to regulate in the detail of construction design and management. Government resources should be directed to create the climate where the industry can integrate and modernise itself. All the government has to do is ensure that its departments move away from adversarial contracting, deal only with integrated construction teams and definitely desist from dictating who should be the designer.