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Southwark looks to expand controversial framework to tackle lack of diversity

160 tooley southwark office 119
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Southwark Council has asked the 110 firms on its architecture framework for permission to appoint dozens more practices to the list to make it more diverse

No black-led practices and just a handful of BAME-led practices were appointed to the £10.2 million Architect Design Services (ADS) framework in May – a result described as ‘clearly unacceptable’ by mayor of London Sadiq Khan.

The lack of diversity among appointed architects contrasted sharply with Southwark’s population, which is 25 per cent black and 46 per cent non-white.

The London borough, which has previously said the lack of diversity on the framework reflected the wider construction industry, is now seeking to increase the size of the four-year framework by 20-25 per cent.

Southwark and its partner London Housing Consortium (LHC), a body which compiles public frameworks, have written to all of the companies and asked them to agree to amended terms and conditions allowing the framework to be expanded.

If the 110 practices agree to the changes, then Southwark will select extra architects for the framework based on ‘market engagement and an equalities impact analysis’ during August and September.

An ‘enhanced’ framework with around 22 to 35 new practices on it would be formally created in between May and July next year.

A spokesperson for the borough said: ‘We will seek architects who live and breathe progressive equality, diversity and inclusion practices in how they operate, how they recruit and how they design and deliver schemes.’

She added: ‘There is a powerful business case for councils to appoint local, diverse architects and designers who understand and have lived experience of deprived communities, especially coming out of Covid-19.’

Elsie Owusu, founder of Elsie Owusu Architects and a champion of diversity in architecture, said Southwark needs to be proactive in overcoming a lack of trust in its procurement system.

‘Practices on the framework mostly lack diversity, these firms have been appointed by a borough with a track record for failure in diversity, and these practices are now to be given a veto as to whether the systemic failures change or not’, she said.

‘Southwark must be careful to build trust in the strategy, and confidence the methods, used in expanding the framework. With the 20 years of failure, the danger is that BAME architects may be wary and distrust the process – thinking “What has changed? Why now?”.’

Q+A on the Proposals 

Three questions answered by a spokesperson for Southwark Council. 

How many new practices could be appointed to the framework?
An increase of 20-25 per cent on the original framework is being considered. It’s unclear as yet [whether this is an increase on the 110 practices, or 141 lots, which currently exist] because it will depend which lots the applicants go for. For instance, we think it’s possible we could get a bottle neck for Lot Three, New Homes under £5 million because this attracts micro-SMEs. It’s difficult to commit to one or the other before seeing what the results are that we get when we go to tender, so we may decide to keep this flexible right up to the end of the procurement.

Do you require individual consent from all of the practices currently on the shortlist?
This is a significant opportunity for the architectural profession, and they recognise change is needed and want to work with us on that. It is an important, symbolic step in addressing inequality, as well as a practical one of extending the framework. We will therefore require support from the current providers on the framework to expand it, and we have been heartened by the very encouraging response we have so far had.

Will expanding the framework definitely happen?
We’ve analysed the legal risks but believe our aim to achieve greater diversity is paramount, and we believe this is achievable for the benefit for all parties. Our intention is to expand the framework taking into account the legal implications to ensure it is a sustainable and attractive solutions for any London contracting authority to use. We expect the new, enhanced framework to be delivered in 10-12 months.

The founding director of one of the 110 practices to have received letters from the local authority and LHC, Gort Scott’s Fiona Scott, has said that her practice supports the measures.

‘In a world that is not fair, the retroactive addition of more practices through a scoring system weighted on diversity is a step in the right direction.’

However, she notes that more nuance will be required to foster greater inclusivity, ‘if the new criteria, as implied in the letter, are; “diversity in the practice, commitment to addressing equality, diversity and inclusion, and projects that demonstrate a focus on community outcomes”, then straight, white male-owned practices could also score highly in those criteria,’.

‘A more diverse framework is essential, it creates good design and better outcomes for Southwark’s residents’, she added. ‘The new scoring process may not satisfy everyone and there could be legal challenges, but in the current context it is critical that we prioritise fair representation.’

Peter John, leader of Southwark Council, said: ‘There is a diversity problem within the architectural profession, and in construction generally, and a lack of representation often leads to poorer community outcomes.

‘We could have done better to address this in our framework procurement and we need to put this right, so that equality is at the heart of our building and development programme. Working with our partners at the Greater London Authority and with LHC we are already improving our approach, first by looking at expanding and enhancing our framework.

He added: ‘I hope that what we lead to is an exemplary way of working, to attract diverse businesses, which will influence other councils in London and beyond, and ultimately attract more work for black-led and BAME businesses on our framework.’

Comment - John Skivington, group director at LHC

Since the complaints were raised we have been working hard with Southwark Borough Council, the GLA and the complainants to see what positive action we can take to address the lack of diversity on the ADS framework. We have now extended this discussion to the 110 practices on the framework.

The framework was designed to be more accessible and attract a wider pool of talent, particularly at SME level. This was successful to an extent, but the lack of BAME-led practices on the final list shows that there was more that we could have done.

Our ambition is to use this as an opportunity to drive significant change in the industry and we are hopeful that we can gather the support of the practices involved.

The lack of BAME-led practices on the list shows there was more that we could have done

Beyond the ADS framework, LHC is looking at other changes it can make. The first is to collect supplier diversity information on all new LHC frameworks.

Collecting data will help us to understand the scale of the issue more fully and identify where positive interventions can make a difference. For example, this might include increasing support at the pre-tender stage to encourage more diverse practices to get involved.

We’re at the early stages, but want to play our part in helping the construction industry to address the inequalities and lack of diversity that are clearly evident.


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Readers' comments (1)

  • As one of the practices appointed to the framework Daykin Marshall Studio wholly support Southwark and LHC in this drive to diversify the pool of practices. The framework is already innovative in radically rewriting the procurement process to open the door to smaller practices, and those who had not worked for a local authority before (by not relying on standard bid-template questions, and allowing wider design skill demonstration instead of a list of 'similar' projects).

    Southwark and LHC should be applauded for this genuine desire to shake up public procurement, and now encouraged in their goal to take it further by actively promoting diversity in the procurement process. The appointed practices introductory webinar (during lockdown) stressed Southwark's desire to see framework practices collaborate in order to form the ideal teams to meet the brief for call-off projects. If the pool of practices is wider and more diverse then the opportunities for collaboration will be greater - working together to make better public buildings and spaces.

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