I know, I know … the OFT inquiry is a bit like being sprayed with chicken excrement while eating a three-course meal. But trust me, it doesn’t have to be like that
The building industry has one of those damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t sort of profiles. You know what I mean – everyone seems constantly down on it for doing what it’s supposed to do yet would be even more furious if it didn’t. People realise that houses or schools or post-abbatoir rendering plants have to be built, but nobody wants them anywhere near where they live.
It’s this kind of image that means that whenever a bad story breaks about the industry, the public’s reaction is to shake their heads like a disappointed form master, as though the whole thing comes as no surprise, then arm themselves gleefully with specialist faecal face-rubbing equipment.
No great turn-up for the books, then, that when the Office of Fair Trading finally fired the starting gun on the whole cover pricing brouhaha, people decided they weren’t going to trust builders any more. Again. At this, some sections of the industry ran off to the toilets to splash their faces with cold water and stare at themselves in the mirror, mouthing “Oh my God …” over and over again, like a girl in a nightclub who’s just spotted her knickers on the dancefloor. This very magazine, indeed, has launched a campaign designed to restore the reputation of the industry.
I say: everybody calm down. There really is no need to panic. If you deal with this rationally you should be up and running again in no time.
First, you need to sort out the OFT itself. Now, in all truth, few people know what it is. Until this story broke I assumed that it was texting shorthand for ‘Oh, f*** this.” (Which would seem appropriate under the circumstances.) However, it turns out to be a government department, and that plays into your hands. These beasts are incredibly slow. Look at how long it took the OFT to make the investigation that kicked this all off. Four years. Four whole years to mail-merge a pro-forma letter asking for the figures relating to tenders with the addresses of the councils and hospital trusts in England. You could do that in a spare afternoon. So despite the OFT’s request for written responses by the end of June, the chances of this thing reaching a conclusion any time soon are slim. Factor in the involvement of m’learned friends and the administrative upheaval of a change of government halfway through the process and, given the current rate of global warming, it’s likely that the whole thing will be overtaken by more pressing questions, such how can we stop the television floating away when we’re watching Taggart?
One of the accused firms might build an immigration reception centre with a massive catapult on top
Second, government departments are unlovely and unloved. What the accused firms should do is chip in to buy the OFT some flowers, and I’m pretty sure the problem might just go away. Good flowers, though. Don’t get them from a garage on your way over. It will know that chrysanthemums aren’t supposed to smell of unleaded. And don’t go buying fancy-schmancy architectural bouquets with birds of paradise or bamboo in it. You think it looks characterful, but it doesn’t. It’s like choosing the lyrics to Imagine as a reading at your wedding.
Then there’s the public. Now, the silver lining of the inquiry being splashed all over the papers is that among the population at large it gives the industry more of a sense of having three dimensions and depth, being as it is the first story about the sector for seven years that hasn’t involved the words “brownfield”, “sustainability” or “Olympics”, “never”, “going”, “to”, “be”, “ready”, “in” and “time”. However, there’s no doubt that the public (who, as they get most of their information about other walks of life from sketch shows and the output of E4) have taken a broadly dim view of this latest development. So. How to win them back…
Well, my suggestion here would be to court them with a series of flashy, on-budget projects. But I don’t think these can be your box-standard civic centres. What you need is something that will play to Middle England, the keystone in the Hacked Off demographic.
It shouldn’t be too hard to think of what these ought to be; essentially, all you need to do is to bring Daily Mail editorials to life. So one of the accused firms might build an immigration reception centre with a massive, aimable catapult on the top for the instant implementation of deportation decisions. Another could construct a school with a built-in prison and electroshock therapy centre. And you could probably put a massive catapult on the top of that, too. Not sure what it would be for, but it would look suitably draconian and that’s basically what these people want. Those are the only two notions that spring immediately to mind, other than putting up a building right in front of every speed camera in Britain.
Which, by the way, would definitely do the trick.
Chris Addison is a writer, actor and comedian