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Small practices squeezed out in procurement shake-up

Changes in the way public sector buildings are procured have had a devastating effect on small practices, figures to be released by the RIBA later this month will show. Egan-inspired methods of selecting architects and contractors for jobs such as schools and doctors' surgeries have sent the proportion of public-sector work managed by small practices tumbling to just 6 per cent.

The figures will reveal that during the past five years private housing and offices have provided most work for small practices, while public housing, health and education have provided the least.

RIBA vice-president for small practices Elspeth Clements said anecdotal evidence suggested that small practices' proportion of public-sector work has fallen from 50 per cent, and that the trend is hitting practices which in the past have relied on commissions for small schools and surgeries in their formative years.

She blamed the growth of the Private Finance Initiative and long-term framework agreements, and said: 'There is a real lack of publicly funded work for small practices and it is the procurement process which is the problem. The RIBA has to look at the full implications of procurement methods on the profession as a whole.'

RIBA director of practice Keith Snook said: 'It is very much a worry to the small practice lobby. We are taking it very seriously.' Behind-the-scenes lobbying at the institute has already had pledges of support for small practices from the Ministry of Defence's property arm and from the Department of Trade and Industry, which runs the government's policy of backing small- and medium-sized businesses.

But Nigel Greenhill of Greenhill Jenner said that new procurement procedures, due to be introduced across the NHS this year, look certain to squeeze small practices. NHS Estates is planning to establish framework agreements with major contractors and it trumpets one of the benefits of the scheme as 'working in long-term partnerships with substantially fewer partners'. Greenhill is afraid that larger architects will be better placed to win work from these partners, leaving small practices to struggle.

Charlie Sutherland, partner in young Edinburgh-based practice Sutherland Hussey, said local-authority procurement procedures had made winning work 'a hell of a struggle' for small practices and 'very frustrating'.

Small practices, which the RIBA defines as having fewer than 10 architects, account for about half of all practices in the UK and their public sector workload is considerably smaller than for the construction industry as a whole. Under the latest government spending plans the industry will rely on the public sector for about a third of its work.

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