COUNCILLORS AND CONTRACTORS. B UILDERS' accounts are seldom very attractive reading,
but the report of the Works Committee of the London County Council, which was presented last Tuesday, is a striking exception to this rule. It is the record of a very interesting experiment, and it is full of matter which those who wish more experiments of the same kind tried will do well to lay to heart. If we were altogether opposed to County Councils doing their own business, we should ask for nothing better than that this recommendation should be altogether disregarded. Some among the workmen, and some among the Councillors, have only to do in the future what they have done in the past to bring the building operations of the Council to a speedy end. For ourselves, we frankly say, we should regret this. Our admiration for the contractor is at best qualified, and even when he is thoroughly satisfactory, we do not see why the cost of calling him in should not be saved, provided that the ratepayers do not lose more than they gain by the change. As far as figures go, indeed, we do not think that the ratepayers have much to complain of. The works already undertaken by the Council were estimated to cost something over £176.000. They have actually cost not much less than .t179,000. An excess of £2,777 in calculations of this magnitude does not strike us as serious. Supplementary estimates and excess over contract are items not unknown to those who have to do with private builders. Moreover, the manager of the Works Department says that, in some cases, the dif- ference is accounted for by the materials used being better than those allowed for in the estimate, and he seems to hint at some extravagance in this respect on the part of the surveyors employed by the architect's department. The largest discrepancy between estimate and result was in two sets of workmen's dwellings—the excess being 25 per cent, in the one case and 30-1, per cent, in the other. This is partly explained by the fact that the whole cost of fitting up the workshops was charged to the first year instead of being spread over a period of years. But besides this, "all the material was subjected to the most rigid examination and only the very best quality used. No sappy imported scantlings were used, for floors and roofing, no windows that would shrink were passed, and no patch- work permitted." Upon this we have only to say, that if this case was taken simply to ensure economy in the long. run, the architect's department were dealing rightly. If, on the other hand, it was done to carry out the principle that nothing is too good for the working classes, the depart- ment was clearly wrong. In all building operations there is room for discrimination in the choice of materials— occasions for which an inferior quality is, in practice, just as useful as the best quality. If it is important that the economy of the London County Council should not be shortsighted, it is no less important that it should be watchful of every chance that presents itself of saving money. There is such a thing as ostentation in work. This, however, is not the most interesting feature of the Report. The manager goes on to tell some plain truths about that part of the excess which is due directly to the shortcomings of the workmen employed, and indirectly to the action of certain members of the Council. The wages paid were 50 per cent. of the total outlay on these dwell- ings, whereas they ought not to have been more than 40 per cent, of it. "It is quite certain that in these two eases we did not get the amount of work by the men that we had a right to expect." So far as this was the fault of the foremen, it is not likely to recur. They had to be trained, and training takes time. But it was not only the fault of the foremen. Some of the workmen, at least of the skilled workmen, had a wholly wrong conception of their relation to the work and to the Council. They evidently thought that as the Council were their elected representatives, their business was to make things easy for their constituents. There was to be no effective super- vision, and there were to be no dismissals. They under- stood well enough what working for a contractor meant. In that case, it was the employer's business to get all he could out of the men he employed. But working for a Progressive Council meant that the men employed were to do pretty much what they chose. The municipality was a master that could be trifled with, and in the first instance, at all events, some of them came to the job determined to trifle with him. The Progressive majority was the representative of advanced ideas upon social matters, and among advanced ideas upon social matters were included not only short hours but short work. It was only after repeated dismissals, says the Report, that the workmen learned that eight hours' work for the Council meant the same thing as eight hours' work for a private contractor. At starting, some of them didnot intend that it should mean anything of the sort. They would work as much or as little as they thought proper. They had no fear of the foreman, for they were evidently under the impres- sion that the foreman had not the free hand in dealing with them that a foreman usually has." Nor, it may be suspected, was this the only " impression " by which their action was influenced. A man would hardly have" pickel up his tools and left" because the foreman complained of the small amount of work done, if he had not believed that he would shortly be reinstated on his own terms. In some cases, too, the foremen themselves were under the impres- sion that the conditions under which the men were engaged, and by consequence their own relations to the men, were different from those existing in private works. There is nothing surprising in all this. During the canvass at the County Council Elections there had been so much wild talk, so much exaltation of a supposed labour millennium which the County Council was about to introduce, that it is quite natural that the men's heads should have been turned. This explains, too, the dis- tinction the Report draws between the skilled and unskilled workmen in the employ of the Council. This "tendency to give a minimum amount of work for a maximum of pay," has been principally confined to the former ; "with the unskilled labour there has, generally speaking, been no cause for complaint." The reason, no doubt, is that the flattery so unsparingly bestowed upon the working men in the course of the election was for the most part addressed to the members of Trade-Unions ; the labourers came in for little or none of it. If one candidate after another tells the working-class elector that the tables are about to be turned, and that in future he is to be his own employer, is it wonderful that the first use he makes of his new powers is to lighten his work ? On the contrary, is it not just what every one of us would do, supposing that we took the workman's view of the situation ?
It does great credit to the Works Department that they do not seem for a moment to have shared the men's delusion. The Report speaks of "repeated dismissals" of the men, while as regards the foremen, it says plainly that the services of the men who had charge of the works that had cost too much, " were as soon as possible dis- pensed with." Considering the kind of interference Mr. Holloway had to contend with, this plain speaking is greatly to be commended. Indeed, we can hardly say that it was the fault of the men that they gave little work for their wages. The blame really falls on certain members of the Council, who appear to think that the duty of agitation is not to be foregone even when the sufferers by the agitation are the ratepayers they profess to repre- sent. It is the custom of these gentlemen to go round the works which are going on, to enter into conver- sation with the men employed there, and thus to encourage them to store up their grievances till the expected visit is paid, and then to relate them in a most exaggerated form. The inevitable result of this practice is to lead the men to regard these self-appointed "visiting justices" as a court of appeal by which the decisions of the foremen will be reviewed and very often reversed. Several of the foremen, indeed, "have com- plained of the bad effect this has on the men, and have stated that their authority over them is very much diminished" in consequence. Mr. Holloway is even less guarded in his condemnation, and calls the effect on the men" most pernicious." Of course it is most pernicious, and the only thing that surprises us is that it has not been still more so. Under the stimulating influence of these peripatetic Councillors, we should have expected the addi- tion to the wages that ought properly to have been paid to be greatly in excess of 10 per cent. We shall be curious to see what steps the Council take next week to put an end to this objectionable practice. Mr. Holloway says that the men have ample means for stating any grievance under which they think they suffer, and we see no reason to doubt it. But if any further redress is wanted, it would be easy to appoint a "visiting Com- mittee," and to pass a by-law forbidding individual members of the Council to take the function of this Com- mittee upon themselves. We admit that such a by-law might be difficult to enforce upon a recalcitrant Councillor; but in this case we should be disposed to trust to the good sense of the electors to dispense with his services on thc- next opportunity.