Until government accepts the need to reform the procurement system then we’re just wasting our breath, says Martyn Evans

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At a gathering of the London Mayor’s Design Advisors recently, I sat in on a workshop about maintaining design quality. The debate centred on architect retention clauses in design and build contracts. There were clever people around our table who care passionately about how people should live, and the ideas flowed, but as I listened I realised that whatever they came up with in terms of ideas to implement the mayor’s policies to support good design, unless there is a fundamental shift in the way we procure design and then build, we are looking at a very long, slow, frustrating campaign that might never succeed.

The core issue is that those in control – the developers and their investors – in the main simply don’t care about the value of good design. They don’t have to. While demand in the volume housing market exceeds supply, everything housebuilders build will sell. That means there’s very little real competition and consequently no incentive to innovate or to tempt buyers with a better quality product.

This supplier-dominated marketplace also impacts on how developers procure professional services. Design is one of the main tools to create difference and market competitiveness, but in a market where this is irrelevant architects complain that they simply join a list of suppliers alongside lawyers, planning consultants and engineers, expendable when a contractor insists on their own designers to take a scheme through a design and build process. I’ve lost count of the conversations I’ve had with very unhappy architects whose clever, thoughtful schemes are butchered by contractors and their delivery architects sometimes to the point where they ask for their names to be removed from a scheme’s credits. As always, this is where the conversation around the mayor’s advisors’ table ended up. How do architects fight back when the power seems to be concentrated so heavily on the other side of the table?

I fear there is no answer unless something fundamental changes in the supply of housing, particularly in our cities. I’m not remotely happy writing something so defeatist, particularly when there is so much will on the designers’ side of the table to make really good, sustainable places. But I’m afraid it’s true. Until the government takes the housing crisis seriously and takes a different ideological position, we can talk all we like about how to build better relationships between developers and architects, how we can build compliance clauses into planning agreements (this, of course, relies on well-resourced, expert planning officers to give the compliance clause some teeth), and how we can help developers to understand the value and importance of great design.

The supply of housing needs to go up. Significantly. And the right kind of housing. I drove down City Road in London this morning peering up at the growing cluster of towers just north of Old Street roundabout. I wondered how many of the apartments are occupied, and by whom. Where are those in most need being housed? Government policy that means social housing is only delivered as part of private sector speculative building means that volume housebuilders have yet more control over where and how we all live, even those who aren’t buying from them.

We need more social housing. And those who have the residents at the top of their list of priorities (local authorities, community land trust groups and housing associations) need to be building the most. We should accept private sector developers’ viability appraisals (particularly when local authority planners simply don’t have the resources to argue), build across-the-board overage clauses into planning agreements, require them to build enough social housing to create some kind of mixed element into larger developments and hand the balance of the cash to the public sector to build more.

So I’m calling on everyone in our industry to lobby government. RIBA, the raft of smaller professional organisations, local authorities, housing associations and every architects’ practice that cares. It’s going to take a mountain of pressure to deliver change, but it has to be done. Only then, in a market where developers need to work harder to sell what they build, can great design be recognised for the value it undoubtedly has to change people’s lives.

 

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