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Mayor of London slams lack of diversity on Southwark architecture framework

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The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has branded the lack of diversity in the practices chosen for Southwark Council’s architecture framework as ‘clearly unacceptable’

The borough set out to ‘engage a new generation of designers’ when it launched its £10.2 million Architecture Design Services framework with London Housing Consortium last November.

The new framework contains a total of 141 positions, including a ‘first-of-its-kind’ lot for practices with small revenues and little or no experience of public work.

But none of the 110 practices appointed are led by black architects, and only about half a dozen practices are believed to be owned or run by people of colour.

The lack of diversity is in stark contrast to Southwark’s residents, who are 25 per cent black and 46 per cent non-white, according to documents published by the council in 2018.

A spokesperson for the mayor of London told the AJ: ‘The outcome of the procurement for Southwark’s Architect Design Services framework is clearly unacceptable.’

He added: ‘The mayor is committed to helping ensure the built environment sector reflects the diversity of the capital […] we look forward to working with [Southwark] to increase the framework’s diversity.’

In an article published by the AJ today, Southwark’s council members for growth and regeneration, Leo Pollak and Johnson Situ, describe the framework as ‘arguably the most dynamic new pool of designers seen in many years’.

But the duo admit a ‘frustratingly low’ number of practices led by BAME architects are on the framework, adding: ‘We know that our design pool still too far reflects the wider systemic issues in the profession that limit the cultural diversity of its practitioners.’

Pollak and Situ also explain that the first round of the procurement process involved a 21-strong panel – with 12 BAME people and 12 women on it – blindly evaluating 365 applications.

And they pledge to use competition criteria for how Southwark calls off from the framework to include significant weighting on project team diversity and ‘opportunities for bringing in new voices through subcontracting and collaborations’. 

Elsie Owusu, founder of Elsie Owusu Architects, agreed with Khan that the lack of diversity was unacceptable but pointed out that Southwark was ‘not alone and just happen to be caught out in quite a high-profile way’.

However, she encouraged Southwark to re-run the framework and ‘look freshly’ at how it is delivered. ‘It’s an opportunity for Southwark to become a leader and show the other 32 authorities and the GLA – none of whom are doing that well – how things can be done,’ she said.

She added: ‘If you are designing for a community – be it anywhere – local architects understand and know the local conditions and have access to intelligence about how people want to live, which is absolutely key. The model of being a good architect is being as close to the client as possible and delivering the best possible environment in accordance with their issues.’ 

Comment: ‘Black-led practices don’t only deliver for the built environment’

The lack of diversity in Southwark’s framework is concerning, writes TOCA director Teri Okoro

The exclusion of black-led architects practices from opportunities to contribute to our built environment and public realm has been a familiar narrative for over three decades, since the first such practice, AEA, was founded. Research and commentators have highlighted the issue since. Initiatives as the SOBA (Society of Black Architects) and other newer organisations have attempted to address the problem, with limited or no success.

In 2019, the mayor for London’s Good Growth by Design study recognised ‘that built environment professionals can have a huge impact on Londoners’ lives and wellbeing’ and that ‘the sector should reflect the diversity of London itself’.

Black-led practices not only deliver for the built environment. Emerging from London’s diversity, they are authentic role models, mentor a high proportion of students, provide training and employment opportunities where none exist and contribute to the wellbeing and socio-economic fabric of their communities, among other things. Their inability to thrive, with several folding up over time, adversely impacts their communities, who also contribute to the public purse.

The outcome of Southwark’s recent procurement exercise that excludes representation from a group forming a quarter of their population is most concerning, as it represents a failing in process, outcome and delivering on their Public Sector Equality Duty to advance equality of opportunity.

The trickle-down concept, which devolves the Equality Duty of positively impacting diverse communities to third parties, is often not vigorously monitored, has not succeeded in achieving lasting sustainable outcomes in the past and is unlikely to do so in this instance.

Southwark needs to review assumptions and weightings to avoid a recurrence

Southwark needs to review assumptions and weightings in their procurement process that contributed to this outcome to avoid a recurrence. Elements such as competition entries are likely to exclude black-led practices, whose circumstances often don’t offer the luxury of investing copious time in participating in competitions.

Southwark and other organisations drawing from this not-fully-representative panel require a more structured fix to the current outcome. For instance, formalising the partnering or collaboration requirement to achieve a target, providing a list of those excluded dynamic black-led practices perhaps procured through a dynamic purchasing system, also ensuring that PI requirements are not unduly onerous.

Teri Okoro is a director of TOCA, sits on the Construction Industry Council’s diversity and inclusion panel and delivers equality, diversity and inclusion workshops to organisations

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