Second opinion. If the government wants good design, why doesn't it give more work to the firms best placed to deliver it?
Whatever else Tony Blair might say about the importance of design, one message comes through loud and clear. As far as the government is concerned, small is definitely not beautiful.

On the agenda at a small practice seminar at the RIBA last week was a survey sent out to all practices with fewer than 10 people. That is, 67% of all architects. The survey showed many things that we already suspected. For example, most architects work too hard (76 hours a week) and get paid too little. Many have difficulty getting paid at all.

But these attributes are probably true of small businesses in almost any field. The more surprising finding, given the nature of the architectural service itself, is the proportion of fee income that comes from government-funded work. Thirty years ago, 50% of architects worked directly for the public sector. The rest worked for private practices, but up to 50% of the workload in those practices was for publicly funded clients. Today it appears that only 6% of small practice income comes from government funding.

All those post offices, hospitals, school extensions, police stations, railway stations and so on that used to be the lifeblood of small local practices up and down the country have now either disappeared or are all done by colossal firms or as part of Treasury-friendly PFI packages. In Building's annual survey of consultants' earnings, the casual browser does not have to look too hard to find architects with a fee turnover of £100m and only three or four jobs.

This is a problem for those trying to promote excellence in public building. If you give a £200 000 refit to an architectural practice whose Richter scale of fee income barely trembles at half a million, what kind of priority are they going to give a job that size? Exactly. I suppose office junior architects have to start somewhere, but the design talent is not doing suspended ceiling details in MegaCorp Architects, it is out there in the small practices. And a job of £200 000 would be taken seriously by almost any practice of two or three. By taken seriously, I mean really thought about from the initial design stage right through to construction. Not that every 30-year-old publicly funded small building is a gem, but there was a good deal more architectural consideration evident in the 1940s and 1950s than there is now.

If you give a £200 000 refit to a practice whose Richter scale of fee income barely trembles at half a million, what kind of priority will they give it?

If you want to see examples of beautifully designed work in the £250K bracket, you are unlikely to see it in a hospital or a library. You will see it in a one-off wine bar or restaurant or advertising agency; these building types are often fizzing with ingenuity. They are all developed within the discipline of carefully controlled budgets and programmes. Unfortunately, all that hard work probably has a lifespan of about 20 minutes. In the meantime, the public has to sit in unbelievably gruesome waiting rooms or work in awful neon-lit offices for years and years.

These days, if government can't buy its accommodation off the shelf, it wants to rent it cheap and pack it to the gills. As a result, millions of days a year are lost to absenteeism. Unless it is the actual government itself that will be working there, of course, in which case only Sir Michael Hopkins and £1m per MP is an adequate budget.

Once you take small architects out of the equation, of course, you take small builders out as well. We've all seen tender documents as thick as telephone directories where the actual work is described in five pages. The verbiage is designed for backside-covering and is based on the assumption that builders don't know how to do their job. All this does is make accountants feel happy. What actually happens is that a large organisation with the tender credibility procures the work, signs all the collateral warranties, agrees all the bonds, and demonstrates all the turnover and regulatory compliance. It then subcontracts the construction work out to AN Other, who has none of those things, and is at one remove from the client and two removes from the job itself, because of the inevitable angst and hassle that comes from not being paid directly, properly or at all.