Did you see any of the BBC TV drama Life on Mars? Sam Tyler, modern day detective, was accidentally catapulted back to 1973, in the same job and surrounded by Sweeney-style coppers of 35 years ago.
I loved it. And oh, there it was, the Mark 3 Cortina, the “cokebottles” look, boomerang steering wheel, cowled instrument clocks. It would do 0-60 mph in 12.5 seconds – wow!
And that was the year when the construction industry was allowed to work only a three-day week. Ted Heath, Britain’s prime minister at the time, was forced to switch off our electricity supply because of a dispute or two. Selective employment tax was levied on every construction worker at 25/– per man per week. New decimal coinage befuddled my dear ol’ Nan. British Gypsum sold its plasterboard in metric sheets at one new pence per square foot! We had just been through a period when the lead time for ordering plaster baseboard was 63 weeks – true. Building Law Reports No1 edition was in the making. A predecessor of mine on this very page, barrister John Parris, had persuaded the Builder Group to publish court cases about building contract disputes. That series is still massively popular today because of the quality of the law report writers. Ruined, if I may say, by being published in a limp softback series. Horrid. But marvellous because it’s all “online”.
Ah, but 35 years on, we love looking at what was. We love being reminded of what was familiar. Those detectives in 1973, especially detective chief inspector Gene Hunt, were, truth to tell, cave dwellers. Heaven protect us from such people. Thirty-five years ago DCI Gene Hunt bullied everyone. And today in 2007 the bully bedevils the building industry and in 35 years’ time will the bully be sorted?
But stop; pause right here. Jot down what is bullying you now. No, not who, but “what”. Yes, of course a bully is usually a person. But what is the mode, the vehicle, or the instrument? Is it corporate bullying? Institutional bullying? Client bullying? Gang bullying? Bullying by proxy? Oh hell, is it regulation bullying; is it legal bullying? Is it bullying by harassment, by discrimination, prejudice, abuse, conflict, even violence? I will tell you what I jotted down in a moment.
One man’s quality control is another man’s kick in the crutch. Dress it up all you will, it has all the characteristics of threats
Last week The Times ran an item headed “Barristers may be graded on quality”. The legal editor wrote: “Incompetent barristers whose courtroom advocacy falls below par will be referred by judges and colleagues to a ‘remedial’ panel to bring them up to scratch. The Bar Council is also proposing a scheme to grade barristers who do legal aid work according to proficiency and experience.” Rumour has it that incompetent architects, incompetent surveyors, incompetent engineers, incompetent … (oh, who cares?) … all will go to their “remedial” panel.
Is this bullying? One man’s quality control is another man’s kick in the crutch. Dress it up all you will, it has all the characteristics of threats. Dress it up beautifully: it is intended to weed out the culprit. But giving an incompetent architect a dose of remedials is a cop out. Hell, we don’t want to find out that an engineer can’t engineer from a collapsed beam and a sore head and a bill, and then give him a dressing down. Find out about his abilities from training and more training.
Or is your bully a client? It is a variety of bullying when forms of building contract become riddled and fiddled with one-sided changes. It is called “abuse of contract”. Not confined to client tactics by the way. The large manufacturers bully their customers into accepting harsh terms in small print. Few can fight all that. Tricky, too, is withholding money otherwise due. Some see it as bullying. And the conclusion you have to reach is that the problem is the bully himself and with the personality of the bully – incompetence, denial, blame, feigning victimhood.
As for what I jotted down, it was two things: first anything that stifles innovation, optimism, independence is bullying.
Second, bullying is great for the victim’s neck muscles; this week swivel left to watch over your left shoulder, next week swivel right.
Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator. Read his regular blog at www.building.co.uk/blogs