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Market demands must be tempered if family life is not to suffer

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James Callaghan's government was brought down by the Winter of Discontent.

His daughter, Baroness Margaret Jay the Minister for Women, therefore had good reason to tell interviewer Jonathan Dimbleby that she didn't want 'a class war': she knows the unpredictable outcome of social conflict!

For those who don't remember, January 1979 saw London's parks piled high with rubbish as strikes left dustbins overflowing, patients turned away from hospitals, and food and petrol supplies disrupted.

That winter, democratic socialism in Britain was hung out to dry. Despite improvements to their material well-being, Britain's ever expanding middle-class has suffered the consequences ever since.

By imposing a 5 per cent pay limit Callaghan had unleashed the fury of his party and industrial chaos. Thereafter, the failure of public sector authorities to maintain essential services spawned a growing enthusiasm for privatised supply on the basis that payment guarantees delivery.

The events of that winter generated a belief that collective endeavour could never match the efficiency and reliability of individual and private effort.The rest is history: Margaret Thatcher followed Callaghan and a new mood of competition and confrontation emerged to replace any will for consensus and co-operation.

Utterly committed to individualism and self-reliance, Thatcher swept aside the notion of social responsibility and chastised those who relied on the 'nanny-state'. But she did more than just privatise public utilities and sell-off council housing: she changed the very culture of our people.

So when Baroness Jay talks today of improving maternity leave provisions, such aspirations are seen as a monstrous threat to the nation's economic survival, and her suggestion that employees should be entitled to 13 weeks annual unpaid parental leave to assist with family responsibilities is greeted with dismay by small employers who fear that their businesses couldn't survive.

But whatever arguments existed for constraining the unions and for making people less dependent on the state, surely the fragile condition of today's employers has been a heavy price to pay for pandering to the consumer's insatiable appetite for choice, flexibility and economy.

Of the professions, architecture has suffered particularly badly in this respect, with women affected worst of all. For them, career development is hampered by appallingly long and inflexible hours and, especially for the young, very poor remuneration. (The cost of child care frequently exceeds hourly rates of pay! ) So, as long as architects try to meet the unfettered demands of the market, the ability of employers to provide proper and decent conditions for their staff will be compromised.

As consumers we benefit from the revolution that has put individual needs ahead of social responsibility. But we are also involved in supplying the consumer's wants, and whether we suffer the anti-social hours of modern retailing, or the poor conditions of the salaried architect, we are all losers.

Of course our profession's mainly middle class male leaders will continue to espouse a sentimental concern for the defence of the disadvantaged and the dispossessed. But they squeal with indignation whenever the fulfilment of that duty threatens their freedom to compete in the market place.

Instead, such hypocritical bosses prefer to exploit their staff ruthlessly by squandering resources on underpaid projects and unpaid speculative work than to stand up and fight for the decent appointment terms that would allow them to pay properly and provide respectable conditions of employment.

We cannot turn the clock back, nor indeed should we want to, but today's market place must be tempered. We need a solid backlash against unfair employers and employment conditions by women architects.

Reconciling a career in architecture with a responsible and rewarding family life should not be so difficult but, to be sure, our profession needs to husband its resources and improve its status if this is to be achieved.

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