More than 100 sign letter to Boris Johnson over concern for small and BAME-led practices

More than 100 architects and built environment professionals have signed an open letter to Boris Johnson urging him to do more to support small and BAME-led businesses as the country begins to recover from the pandemic.

Elsie Owusu (2)

They say these firms have been disproportionately affected and are most at risk because many have missed out on government support.

Their demands include ongoing access to funding, transparent procurement practices, equal access to project opportunities and supply chains that are representative of their communities.

The 125 signatories include Sonia Watson, chief executive of the Stephen Lawrence Trust, Selasi Setufe, co-founder of the 200-member Black Females in Architecture, Alex de Rijke, co-founder of dRMM, Jeremy Till, vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts, Sarah Weir, chief executive of the Design Council, Assemble director Maria Lisogorskaya, Urban Symbiotics director Stephanie Edwards, and Tara Gbolade, founder of Gbolade Studio and finalist for Building Design’s Female Architectural Leader of the Year.

TV Grand Designs co-presenter Kunle Barker and two former RIBA presidents have also added their names: Owen Luder and Rod Hackney.

The letter is the initiative of architect Elsie Owusu, Royal College of Art academic Umi Baden-Powell and Amos Simbo, founder of the Black People in Construction (BPIC) network.

It points out that covid-19 has had an asymmetric effect on black and minority ethnic (BAME) and socially disadvantaged communities. It also points out that the BAME death rate has been more than 2.5 times higher.

It warns that without “robust strategies for continued access to funding and finance”, SMEs and BAME-led companies and consultancies won’t be able to “survive and thrive”.

Stephanie Edwards RIBA National Schools Programme

Stephanie Edwards

The letter says: “These firms are the life-blood of the economy, with an unparalleled ability to create wealth – providing jobs, education and training for many young people. There is a real danger that without proper safeguards, these companies, which in normal times are often excluded by procurement processes, will struggle even more to get on to tender lists and win publicly funded projects.”

Owusu, who stood for RIBA president at the last election, said most BAME-led firms were SMEs and that many of these fell through the cracks of government support.

“The bounce-back and grant schemes helped many SME and BAME firms to survive the lockdown period,” she said. “However, many have been left out and they and their families may be at risk,” she added, explaining some had missed out because they were sole practitioners or directors who couldn’t furlough themselves, had insufficient turnover, were not entitled to local authority grants because they were sub-lessees sharing space, or were unwilling to take on further debt.

She added: “Hopefully the tragic events highlighted by Black Lives Matter and lives lost in the pandemic will lead to the recognition of the historic contribution of black people worldwide – and the huge creative potential of BAME people in UK architecture, arts and creative industries.”

Tara Gbolade of Gbolade Design Studio

Source: Gbolade Design Studio

Tara Gbolade of Gbolade Design Studio

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The letter to Boris Johnson

Dear Prime Minister

We write as members, students and supporters of the construction industry and architecture, design and engineering professions.

We welcome the chancellor’s funding initiatives for business following the covid-19 pandemic which has severely affected most small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs). These measures, particularly the furlough, CBILS, BBILS and grant schemes will go a long way to ensuring stability and survival during this difficult period.

However, we are concerned that robust strategies for continued access to funding and finance must continue, to ensure that SMEs and BAME-led companies and consultancies can survive and thrive. Many of these companies are owned and run by women – often parents, people with disabilities and carers working from home. The pandemic has revealed that communities are affected differently, according to social, educational and ethnic background. A recent study from the Institute of Fiscal Studies indicated that BAME death rates due to covid-19 have been above 2.5 times higher than other ethnic groups.

As mayor of London and foreign secretary, you spoke eloquently about the UK’s creative sectors and our global reputation for world-class architecture, engineering, sustainable design and construction. These firms are the life-blood of the economy, with an unparalleled ability to create wealth – providing jobs, education and training for many young people. There is a real danger that without proper safeguards, these companies which, in normal times, are often excluded by procurement processes will struggle even more to get on tender lists and win publicly funded projects.

With covid-19 protocols such as working from home (WFH) and social distancing, SME and BAME-led built-environment businesses are uniquely placed to explore and implement the “different normal”. Having deployed WFH practices for many years, we are in a position to design and construct low-carbon, ecologically balanced environments which will make our communities resilient against future pandemics, protecting the most vulnerable members of our society.

We urge the government to take action to mitigate the risk of disproportionately negative effects on SMEs and BAME-led businesses in the UK construction industries, recognising that these sectors are vital to our country’s prosperity and to society as a whole. A sound and successful design and construction industry affects everyone – influencing productivity and wellbeing in the built environment.

In the interests of construction and the survival of SMEs and BAME-led firms, we invite you commit to the following steps:

o All public procurement practices to be inclusive and transparent

o Public projects to be responsive to the communities they serve

o Supply chains to be representative of their local communities

o Government to lead in ensuring equal access for all project opportunities

We sign as individuals, listing our affiliation as evidence of support from our membership of a diverse and inclusive range of organisations

We look forward to hearing from you soon.