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Thursday 7 June 2018

Steady the line, boys ...

No-one starts negotiating stuff at International level. All trade negotiators will have honed their skills over many years, starting with quite trivial agreements and working their way up. Many of us in our own professional fields will have had experience on the lower and middle slopes - and the more that Brexit drags, the more I see correspondences between the process and my own experiences.

One anecdote. We'd put in the best bid for the second part of a serial contract, but it was way higher than the Client's budget. He started by instructing that we reduced the bid to the equivalent of the first part. We said we couldn't do that. He said he wouldn't give us the work. Fine, we said, but tell us quickly so we can get on with other stuff. The ping-pong went on until the order came from the very top on both sides to sit in a room on a Friday and not to come out until the deal had been struck.

Our approach was full-disclosure - an open-book tender. We were taking normal profits on each part, but at the time copper prices were as mobile as the underwear of a lady of negotiable affection, as they say. Cost risks on many other items had pushed the rates up, whilst unknowns and poor measures meant we couldn't do lump-sum prices for many of the quantities. Our base price could be reduced substantially, but only if we moved risk on price and quantity to the Client side and adopted many schedules of rates in place of lump sums. The meeting lasted from 10.00am until 11.00pm. They conceded every major point in the end, and we both went back to principals announcing a win. In the end the actual contract out-turn was within a whisker of our initial bid. Where they found the extra millions from I don't know, but they did.

It was a useful lesson for me - in not grandstanding but explaining honestly and openly why we could not agree to their demands. Unless they moved, the answer would have to be No. Things are about to get very rocky over Brexit. The Germans are utterly inflexible and determined to hurt us, and their man Selmayr inserted corruptly into the heart of the crooked Brussels cabal is turning the thumbscrews. PTSD Adonis and his hysterical chums are shrieking and throwing their skirts over their heads at home. Soros, Lord of the Flies, is using his fortune to try to destroy a Britain he hates. A fifth-column of disloyal and anti-democratic civil servants are sabotaging from within. And we have a leader whom it would be slanderous to accuse of membership of Subphylum Vertebrata. There is a deal on the table we cannot accept - not without blood on the streets. The conditions - a minute to midnight, grossly polarised parties, fear of collapse of order - in other words are perfect to achieve a workable deal. Steady the line boys - don't go to pieces.         

Tuesday 5 June 2018

Grenfell: The only winners will be the fee earners

It is not just Building Regulations in the UK, but the official guidance to the Regulations that must be followed for any new construction project. With an industrial scale laser printer and a few reams of A4 you can, given time, print the whole set of volumes yourself. Unlike British Standards and suchlike, Building Regs are free for all to access - so no reason for anyone not to comply. I frequently have to explain the UK system to the natives. In Austria, only a qualified and licensed Baumeister can build commercially, and written Building Regs are limited to two or three sides of A4 as reliance is wholly on professional competence. In the UK, I explain, anyone can be a builder, yes, anyone - even those with criminal convictions, perhaps especially those with criminal convictions in some cases ... but they must follow this stack of rules we call Building Regs. 

The consequences are as you might imagine. Here, builders are very expensive, very conservative and will over-engineer even the simplest jobs to absurd lengths. Design of new domestic dwellings is banal, even ugly, but massive. Any nester looking to construct an innovative, beautiful house incorporating the latest building technology and cutting edge materials would be better off moving to the UK; here they will be met with noisy tooth-sucking and head-shaking. And builders here are very, very, stubborn. 

My new roof - one of the few jobs here for which I used a profi - is to my eyes still a travesty to which I am not used. The old roof was a lovely 18th century testament of settlement and minor movement, gently undulating with dips, fold and curves. Having worked with English Heritage many times in the UK - very amicably - my instructions here to the builders were to retain the historic form and character in the new covering. No. They spent weeks and threw away a deal of profit on eliminating every historic irregularity with shims, packers and counter-battens to achieve a millimetre perfect regularity. The rows were intense. Three times I threatened to throw them off the job. All to no avail; I could not have found a roofer in all Austria who would build a crooked roof. For their part, having never seen an English restoration, they were convinced I was mad and needed to be over-ruled for my own good. 

What a roof restoration should look like ... unknown to Austrians

Would Grenfell have been done here? Probably not. Contractors here have very much more power and stubbornness than in the UK - the Baumeister has personal liability for failure. They would have used the best materials - with a hefty factor of safety on top - and it was the Client's job to pay whatever it cost. There is little incentive to do otherwise. And as I found, once a contractor is appointed, he very much takes control of the job; the Client is just an irritating noise to be ignored.

So I already know the outcome of the Grenfell enquiry. The mob need some red meat, so a scapegoat or two will be found. We will be told pompously that lessons have been learnt. And above all, new regulations, controls and standards will be legislated to make it more difficult for our bucaneer, unqualified construction industry to flout official intentions. It will not in future be left just to building inspectors to police the Regs. And this will mean a fee bonanza for the suits - I can almost hear this morning the discussions as professional service firms contemplate creating new compliance divisions.

Sunday 3 June 2018

Creating creativity

The old Colony Room club of fading memory had a fair share of LSAs - less -successful artists, as I termed them, to complement our first division YBAs. For every Damien Hirst there was a Justin Mortimer, for every Tracey Emin an Alyson Hunter. As I combed through a pile of crap from the woefully stupid public sector and cynically manipulative private developers for yet another fully-designed 'creative quarter' to an area of south London, I asked several LSAs what they looked for in workspace. The answer was pretty much a Zone 2 Tube station and £4 a square foot. 

The irony is, of course, is that this combination only exists in the little pockets that have remained untouched by the dead hand of Planned Development - old machine shops and assembly plants deserted by industry, the scruffy bits of graffiti-scarred rough common brick and asbestos-cement roofed clutter at the back of council estates unsuited for residential conversion. A whole roomful of economic development officers, town planners, architects and commercial developers can no more create a creative district than they can populate a bijou shopping parade on demand with an organic fish merchant selling grilled sardines, an independent coffee shop and a hipster designer-porridge outlet. 

Simon Jenkins in the Guardian is smart enough to know this. Writing about social-engineering plans to distribute the New Illiberalism that characterises Channel 4 to an area of Britain other than London he writes
There is nothing more gauche than Whitehall “being nice” to the provinces. Its attempt to force Channel 4 to move north from London has felt akin to the Victorian church sending missionaries overseas to civilise the heathen. As austerity descends over museums and theatres across the land, the culture department wants to dispatch a few television executives to live among the natives, to introduce them to kale, quinoa and turmeric lattes. That should cheer them up. Whitehall also seems to want to have some fun. No one has instructed Channel 4 where to go. Instead, the provincial cities are told they must line up like children in a workhouse and beg. London will decide who gets the smashed avocado. There will be two consolation “creative hubs” for the runners-up, wherever the judges can find something approximating Shoreditch High Street.
Still, we should all support this. If only for the chance to seriously piss-off the sanctimonious bigots at the TV station forced to uproot from Blackheath to Burnley or wherever. The more we can disperse these destructive zealots amongst ordinary folk and dilute their malignant influence, the better.