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Facing up to the challenges the next century will offer our profession

Taking as his text the Parable of the Talents, Malcolm Porter, an architect and lay-preacher, recently argued that Christians have a duty to use their skills appropriately. He proffered a challenging question which we, as a profession, might usefully ponder as we celebrate the final Christmas of the twentieth century: are we using our expertise in the best interests of our clients and the community?

Certainly those architects who have endeavoured to undertake socially progressive work have found the 80s and 90s to be difficult times. This period has seen the consistent erosion of the welfarist programme and the steady dismantling of the state departments through which so much of that agenda was delivered.

Of course we all know that the increased standards of living of post- war years have led to greater independence and higher expectations; and that despite the considerable achievements of the health service, the housing programmes, and the education system, the enormous bureaucracies needed to deliver such services were found to be increasingly wanting and cumbersome.

Private-sector management and procurement was seen as the answer by the crusading Thatcherites, and the tremendous efforts of successive generations of social reformers, culminating in the heroic achievements of the Atlee government, were discredited and dismissed with a contempt matched only by arrogance.

Then, in 1985, came 'Faith in the City', a report that fundamentally challenged the ideology and authority of a conservative government which had come under the increasingly critical scrutiny of the church. Dealing with such difficult issues as poverty and employment in the inner city, and of council house sales and privatisation, Archbishop Runcie's intervention was as scholarly as it was courageous.

But whilst a combination of public and institutional concern may have served to temper and even redress the excesses of a government which was strident in its commitment to change, we are left at the close of the century with a very different context for working from the one in which most of us trained.

The interests of the consumer are today paramount, and belief in free markets and open competition is deeply incorporated into the culture of our entire procurement system.

With it we have seen the poorly organised and wasteful growth of architectural competitions as a method of selection; of design and build; of 'one- stop shop' appointments and the inevitable subcontracting of professional services it involves; and of the harsh fee-cutting that is the diabolical result of these initiatives.

In consequence, we witness the ongoing decline in conditions for our so-called 'salaried' architects and the smaller sole practitioners. Too many in our profession lack decent wages, fair (if any) employment terms, or reasonable job security. Indeed today's 'contract' arrangements for architectural staff amount to little more than the 'lump-labour' of the 1970s which put a number of construction directors behind bars.

So, as we break for Christmas, I suggest that we reflect carefully on our relationship with those for whom we work. Are we being used properly? Are we able to deliver our services effectively? Are our efforts being squandered?

Sadly, for many, the inevitable conclusion must be that too many of our clients, and too many of our employers, are misusing, abusing and wasting the energy and skills of our profession. Too much time is currently being expended on projects which go nowhere, and too many projects are procured in ways that inevitably lead to failure, dispute and ultimately, litigation.

So, one immediate challenge in the new century is to secure conditions which enable more people within our profession to work with greater efficiency and effect in the delivery of the service that they have, after all, trained so hard to provide.

Happy Christmas.

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