A newly published government green paper has the potential to profoundly impact UK architectural practice, writes Eleanor Jolliffe

Eleanor Jolliffe

On December 15 the Cabinet Office published a green paper on the future of procurement for public sector projects in the UK. If, like me, you were not sure of the status of a green paper, a visit to publications.parliament.uk informed me that they are discussion papers on legislation still at a formative stage. They are, potentially, followed by a white paper before a bill is discussed in Parliament.  

According to the paper, the UK spends £290 billion a year on public procurement and the government sees this expenditure as crucial to the economy’s recovery from the covid-19 pandemic. It sees the exit from the EU as “an historic opportunity to overhaul an outdated public procurement regime” and has already launched a new “Find a Tender” service for publishing contract notices to replace the Official Journal of the European Union.

>> More information: Transforming public procurement

>> More information: Find a Tender

Procurement is one of the biggest questions the construction industry at large is facing

I will not pretend to be an expert on public procurement and its pitfalls but I am aware that one of the difficulties facing new and small practices in the UK are the pre-qualification requirements inherent in the OJEU process, which largely choke off their ability to bid for public sector projects. I am also aware that procurement is one of the biggest questions the construction industry at large is facing – so this discussion is timely. 

I was recently chatting with a colleague with a few more years in the game than me, and he lamented that the opportunities for the growth of small practices that had existed just 20 or 30 years ago were no longer there. Many of the bigger name practices in UK architecture got their “big break” working on publicly procured projects; it was the opportunity they needed to break away from smaller domestic work into wider typologies and scales. 

The system of procurement we were tied to while still in the EU, with its logical but limiting rules – particularly those asking for recent experience in the typology – deprived a new generation of practices from attempting to bid, and to grow. 

In recent years collaborative teams of big and small practices have been used to try and get around some of these rules, but the green paper suggests they wish to overhaul this with a clear statement that: “The government wants to open up public procurement to a more diverse supply base, making it easier for new entrants such as small businesses and voluntary, charitable and social enterprises to compete and win public contracts.

“We want bidding for public sector contracts to be simpler, with procedures that are quicker and cheaper to participate in and information on contracts easier to find.” 

Lowest-cost tendering is also addressed with the statement that: “The government wants to send a clear message that commercial teams do not have to select the cheapest bid and that they can design evaluation criteria to include wider economic, social or environmental benefits.” Dame Judith Hackitt’s “golden thread” also gets a mention, though slightly out of context. 

Another interesting statement is the government’s intention to set up a new unit and “panel of experts” within the Cabinet Office to oversee public procurement, with powers to “review and, if necessary, intervene to improve the commercial capability of contracting authorities… optimising policy delivery and driving improvements in capability, behaviour and practice”. While I am a little unclear what this would look like in practice, it seems like a table at which architects should attempt to be seated. 

The RIBA told me that it had not been involved in discussions on this green paper. However, president Alan Jones stated that, while transformation of public procurement is “long overdue… the green paper lacks ambition” and that “minor tweaks to amend criteria from ‘Most Economically Advantageous Tender’ to ‘Most Advantageous Tender’ simply do not fit the bill”. The RIBA is currently gathering feedback and plans to share its views with the Cabinet Office next month. 

The green paper does attempt to overhaul some of the problems inherent in public procurement

It seems from my quick reading that the green paper does attempt to overhaul some of the problems inherent in public procurement. Whether these tackle the right part of the problem or go far enough I will leave others better qualified to judge, but there is potential here for this to profoundly impact UK architectural practice.

This column is far too short to consider the implications of this paper in full but, if the ambitions I have highlighted are fully realised, I cannot see how this could be anything other than good news – and a shot in the arm to ambitious small practices with something new to offer. They will also surely make their mark on a profession reeling from the impact of covid-19 and potentially shape the future of the profession.

I am frequently told that it was the privatisation of architecture in the 1980s that shaped practice today (slightly before my time!); if public architecture does become a mainstay of practices of all sizes, we may be working in yet another very different architectural environment 30 years from now.

The green paper is open for comments until March 10, if anyone wishes to contribute.  

>> Also read: Procurement problems could be fixed with new UK portal, RCKa director says

>> From the archive: UK’s dire lack of Ojeu design contests ‘hampers small firms’

Full statement from Alan Jones, RIBA president

“Transformation of England’s complex public procurement processes is long overdue. If reforms also address exclusive application rules, such as requirements for undue experience or excessive amounts of PII, the government could boost “levelling up” and create more opportunities for smaller and newer practices.

”But despite some efforts to streamline processes and broaden access, the green paper lacks ambition to reform the outcome delivered to society. We need reforms that ensure all publicly-funded projects are high-quality, safe and sustainable from inception to occupation – and this relies on the continuity of expertise. Minor tweaks to amend criteria from ‘Most Economically Advantageous Tender’ to ‘Most Advantageous Tender’ simply do not fit the bill. Society needs the government to take the lead, apply tougher sanctions on authorities who put upfront cost ahead of longer term value, and conduct a comprehensive reassessment particular contracts. The RIBA is gathering feedback from its membership and their clients, and will be share their views with the Cabinet Office next month.”