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Sense of proportion

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Broadwater Farm was a catalyst for Gurbux Singh, later to head the council responsible for the troubled estate. Now he is targeting racial inequality in British industry - and he says architecture has no cause for complacency by robert booth.

The Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, north London, burst into the national consciousness on 6 October, 1985, when simmering racial tension developed into a full-blown riot.

For Gurbux Singh, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), the event illustrates how an architect's vision can dramatically backfire. At the time, Singh was working in local authority housing in London, becoming director of housing for Haringey Council (which includes Broadwater Farm) in 1987 and its chief executive two years later. Now he is charged by the Labour government with leading the fight for racial equality with a strengthened Race Relations Act as his main weapon. Fifteen years on from Broadwater Farm he concludes that Haringey's architects department must take some of the blame for the estate's dramatic failure.

'Broadwater Farm, ' he muses from the CRE's Westminster headquarters. 'Now that was an interesting architectural experiment wasn't it?

Whether you'd call what happened a 'disturbance' or a 'riot' is a moot point. But the people who designed and planned it [the estate] must admit it was badly designed. The architects will now accept that, supplemented by housing committees and driven by financial pressures, they have produced high-rise flats which, frankly, were never going to be sustainable.'

Singh thinks that the bleak and isolated estate is typical of the inadequate council housing which was provided to a considerable proportion of black households in the UK.

'Some would say that minority communities were dumped in the least attractive stock, ' Singh said. 'Compound this with some direct discrimination and you get the build-up of concentrations like those at Broadwater.'

So strong was Singh's view that building design was partly to blame for 'the trauma that the estate and the Broadwater community experienced in the '80s', that he oversaw a £33 million expenditure on its fabric which brought the walkways down to ground level and chopped the 22-storey towers down to 14 storeys.

Punjab-born Singh moved to the capital from Wolverhampton where his family had settled in the 1950s. He still supports Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club and the Indian cricket team, but his professional focus has been on the capital since 1972.He initially specialised in local authority housing and community relations.Now he is fixing his sights on racial inequality across all of British industry and is preaching the gospel that a diverse workforce makes business sense.

But he says the construction industry is one of the worst offenders.

'While construction is a major growth area in the country, the reality is that a disproportionately small number of people from the minority communities work within the industry, one to one and a half per cent.Given that 35,000 new jobs are due to be created over the next year, this is surely a major opportunity to do something about this, ' he says.

The picture is slightly different for architecture.

The RIBA has estimated that about 12 per cent of students in UK architecture schools are from the ethnic minorities. This figure may be misleading because overseas students are included and the CRE is keen for the profession to conduct more detailed research into ethnic minority representation.

Perhaps inevitably, Singh uses the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, who planned to train as an architect, as a cautionary tale for the industry.

'We need to look at what is the composition of the profession and why it is that members of the minority communities are excluded. The murder of Stephen Lawrence brings home the point about institutional racism. The architecture profession is not exempt from such charges. It needs to ask itself to what extent it is satisfied that its policies and practices work fairly across minority communities.'

Singh says he would like businesses to set targets for the proportion of their employees drawn from ethnic minority communities which are equal to the balance of the community as a whole. He suggests a figure of 25 per cent for London-based practices and 15 per cent for those in smaller urban areas such as Wolverhampton.

But he gives short shrift to the suggestion that architects may find these targets hard to meet from a pool of qualified workers which does not reflect these ratios.

'There is every reason to assume that you could get that proportion in your office. I have no reason to assume that the profile of the education pool is smaller than the community as a whole, ' he says.

The CRE will investigate businesses which fail to meet such targets and will take them to the high court unless the business accepts its conclusions.

'But we want to create a situation where employers don't wait until a formal investigation takes place, ' he adds.

His cause will be helped by Prince Charles' own high-profile challenge to the architectural establishment on the issue of racial equality, which is due to be delivered at this week's inaugural Stephen Lawrence Memorial Trust lecture. Singh is looking forward to hearing the Prince talk about the need for a greater diversity.

'You may not agree with him, but Prince Charles is someone who is hugely listened to, ' he says. The last time the Prince spoke out on architecture, in his famed 'carbuncle'attack, most in the profession were unimpressed. Singh will be hoping for a better reception on the race issue, for the sake of his own targets of greater diversity in the workforce, but also so the Broadwater Farm nightmare is never repeated.

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