At the level that I operate, nothing that the government has done in the past four has made much of an impact. I still have a little (a very little) publicly funded work that hasn't yet been hoovered up by Sir Robert McAlpine, but then it's specialist and small-scale. Of course, if I was in the business of carrying out emergency repairs to railway lines, I'd be delighted with the administration's largesse. But most small businesses are concerned with general maintenance, and these people are watching their workload dry up as Labour's enthraldom to Things Corporate begins to bite.
As you'll know, Blair's three priorities were "education, education, education". When Tony's merrie men arrived with that stonking great majority and a bulging exchequer, we fondly hoped that they might do something really radical, such as doubling teachers' salaries (basic: £23,950). That would have really transformed society overnight. What education, education, education has come to mean in practice is that hundreds of small contractors and consultants, who have given many years of service to keeping our children in classrooms, will in return be given the elbow. The Treasury wants all the work in a given area done by a single, huge company. New Labour is not business-friendly, only big business-friendly.
This is a serious matter because although construction as a whole is a big business, the firms within it are not. The Department of Trade and Industry classifies a small business as one with fewer than 250 employees. Even when I was working in an architectural practice with a staff of 50, I doubt whether any of the clients, consultants or contractors we dealt with exceeded that size.
If this is what happens with water pipes, God alone knows what will happen to the Tube
There is another difficulty in my working life that Labour has failed to assist me in solving. This is when I come up against what is laughingly referred to as a public utility. I always found that getting outfits such as the water board or the electricity board to connect up a building I had designed was like pulling teeth – but at least someone there understood the workings of those services: how to install them, how to meter them and who in the organisation did what.
When these public "statutory undertakers" were privatised, there was a period when they all became breathtakingly efficient (in other words, they turned up when they said they would), and we fondly imagined it was all going to be roses from then on. What we now have seems to be the ultimate in New Labour thinking: a public service carried out by a private monopoly. Every aspect of the operation is subcontracted out, so that the bloke in a call centre in Aberdeen won't lift a finger until he's got your cheque for the revised quotation, which is in the hands of an accounts clerk in Guildford.
Yet this level of hair-tearing frustration seems like relaxation therapy compared with getting a mains connection when your client has taken up an absurd offer to buy their electricity from a gas supplier. And, for all I know, water from BT. The hole-diggers know nothing about the services being laid into them, nor the demands of the people connecting them, nor the schedule of events. They are all working as tiny cogs in some management-efficiency block-booking fixed-price mega contract – and bugger you, Jack.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London.