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Pauline Nee is in charge of that dying breed: an in-house local authority architects' department. And with a clear commitment to social improvement, she is steering the London Borough of Southwark towards real changes At a time when most local authorities in Britain are 'downsizing' or have simply erased their in-house architects' departments, Southwark in south London is proving to be something of an exception.

The Southwark Building Design Service has grown to a 100-strong team, with 40 or so architects among the quantity surveyors, landscape architects and engineers. It has already picked up the first RIBA/CABE London award for 'local authority of the year'. And now, under the guidance of borough architect and building surveyor Pauline Nee, it is also about to launch a Design Excellence Strategy, underpinning what it expects from external architects and developers who come to work in this large and diverse borough.

Birmingham-born of Irish parents, Nee is unusual as a borough architect, not least because she isn't 'actually' an architect. She studied sociology at university but found this didn't lend itself to an obvious career path. She moved to the Shelter Housing Aid Centre in Kensington (SHAC), which provided housing advice to the homeless and women who were finding themselves in difficult positions after marital break-ups.

From there she became a community worker in Islington (where she still lives), and became interested in the buildingsrelated problems many were suffering from.

'Building surveyors would say to people with condensation problems to just turn up the heat and open the windows - not easy for not well-off people.'

She recalls another incident that drove her to seek building-related solutions to social problems. The council was about to provide a swimming pool on the scruffy Caledonian Road. 'They didn't involve the people at all. We found out about it and asked to get involved. They said it had been on the drawing board, but that we could get involved - with the colours of the tiles!'

For Nee this was galling, as the council was making noises about needing to get people more interested in local politics after a dismal turnout in the local elections. So she trained in building surveying.

When the job of Southwark borough architect came up, Fred Manson, who was at the council at the time, urged Nee to apply for the post. She was reticent because of her lack of architectural qualifications, but Manson persuaded her it wasn't important.

Since then, Nee hasn't looked back.

She has been instrumental in schools, with her mission to get children learning more about design through maths, and maths through design.

'Our intention has been to get kids thinking about design - particularly young kids in Southwark who hadn't thought about a career in architecture.'

Similarly, she delights in being able to raise their awareness of design by providing good quality school buildings. She takes me to one of her projects, the Alfred Salter school on a disused dock near Surrey Quays.

Nee is proud of the scheme, and directly attributes the good marks its pupils are getting to their environment.

Southwark has a worthy, interesting and unusual staff make-up, with a high proportion (for the construction industry) of women at 30 per cent, and the same proportion from ethnic minority groups.

'It's a positive thing, but it's not conscious - people just feel comfortable here, ' she says.

And she reckons the diversity helps.

The authority is the biggest public landlord in London, with 50,000 residential units. Many are in huge post-war estates such as Aylesbury, which hit the headlines when its tenants voted against the estate being transferred to a housing association, and after the collapse of Will Alsop's plans for the area. It is now looking at ways of improving the public realm through the Placecheck method devised by the Urban Design Alliance. Big on consultation, again Another major local project is the massive Elephant and Castle remodelling, under head of regeneration Paul Evans. A few years ago, Manson announced the developer plan to completely overhaul this important transport hub, but the scheme lost steam.

Now Foster and Partners has been appointed to look at masterplanning the area with new houses, schools and offices.

And Nee reveals her department is talking to a leading steel manufacturer about a pilot of prefabricated steel-frame buildings there.

Both the building design service and Nee are also heavily into schools provision, with Nee citing Ken Livingstone's desire to see 30 to 40 more schools in the capital as part of his London Plan. Once again, Southwark is thinking laterally - or rather vertically.With land in scarce supply, old-style schools with playgrounds on the roof might make a comeback. 'We've been coming up with a plan for a high-rise school - five, six or seven storeys up. Hampden Gurney [by BDP] tells you you can do this, but it's funny how things come around again.'

As if all this activity was not enough, Southwark is also about to launch its Design Excellence Strategy - a commitment to quality from chief executive Bob Coomber.

It is, he says, 'an essential element of the process of improving the environment to promote social inclusion, stimulate economic regeneration, reduce crime and vandalism and promote sustainability'.

With a track record of procuring schemes such as Will Alsop's Stirling Prize-winning Peckham Library, Tate Modern, Peckham Pulse and the just-opened Damilola Taylor Youth Centre, and with seven Civic Trust awards won for schemes in the borough last year alone, Southwark's commitment to design appears to be going from strength to strength. Add to that its piloting of Design Quality Indicators and Quality-Based Selection Procedures, which led to Lifschutz Davidson being appointed in Bermondsey, and it is clear that the in-house architect is doing more than hanging on in there.

'We are becoming a particularly rare breed, ' says Nee. But while others have perished, her team has grown to tackle more than 400 projects at any one time, with a value of £250 million. It is a benchmark for other authorities to follow. As the RIBA and CABE put it: 'Best practice doesn't come much better than this.'

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